No place to hide for Gilmore and crushed Labour

It was hardly surprising that Eamon Gilmore was the only party leader who failed to turn up to the count centre in Ashbourne.

In the same constituency just two years ago his Labour Party topped the poll. Now, as its vote trailed behind even the relatively unknown political movement, Direct Democracy Now, the question being asked was not just where is Gilmore, but where are he and his party going?

There are times in politics when individual events of themselves have little import, but trigger a chain reaction with far reaching consequences.

The results of the Meath East by-election has no bearing on the Dáil arithmetic, but will change the political dynamics for the remainder of this term of office.

Apart from a miniscule readjustment of the gender and age imbalance, the election of Helen McEntee largely maintains the status quo.

The Government’s huge majority is unaltered with the election of another Fine Gael backbencher who promises to be a fresh voice but in reality will have little influence.

But what the result does change is the relationships — not just between the two coalition partners but within the opposition ranks and, indeed, between both sides of the House.

Fine Gael is buoyed by the victory. It was eager to point out, throughout yesterday, that this wasn’t a sympathy vote for Ms McEntee, whose father’s death brought about the by-election, but rather “an endorsement by the people that Fine Gael are an effective party in Government”.

The party’s spin doctors said the win was an acceptance by the people that “however tough it is at present, the plan is working”.

While Fine Gael believes its mandate to plough ahead with its policy agenda — which includes property tax, water charges, and austerity budgets — has been strengthened, the resolve of its coalition partners has been weakened.

It’s true that Labour expected a poor showing. They had been engaged in damage limitation in recent days by playing down their prospects and will now argue that by-elections are seldom a true guide to future election success.

But nothing had prepared them for the scale of their defeat. The shock on the face of the Labour candidate, Eoin Holmes, when he was asked for an interview by TV3’s Ursula Halligan said it all.

He came in fifth place with just 4.6% of the vote — less than half that of Sinn Féin and trailing behind a complete political unknown the new Direct Democracy Now movement and its candidate, Ben Gilroy.

In the 2011 general election, Labour’s Dominic Hannigan topped the poll with 8,994 first preference votes — many multiples of the 1,112 secured by the party yesterday.

The defeat could not have come at a worse time for the party, which has already lost four TDs from its parliamentary party.

They are now working from the opposition benches to channel the anger among party members against the direction its leadership is taking in government.

Local councillors and MEPs looking at yesterday’s results will no doubt see some attraction in the position of the rebel TDs. Backbenchers in the Dáil will begin to wonder if their already diminishing chances of getting re-elected have completely disappeared.

This will no doubt embolden them to demand some concessions from Fine Gael, and a change in the party’s direction in government.

The by-election results also change the dynamics on the opposition benches, where Fianna Fáil has emerged from political purgatory — the absolution of its past sins almost complete — and affirmed its position as the leader of the opposition.

Its candidate, Thomas Byrne, came in with a respectable 33% of first preference votes — far better than they could have dreamed of just two years ago when the party had all but been written out of the national political landscape.

Its leader, Micheál Martin, said the result showed his party Was “making progress” in its rebuilding effort. In other words, they haven’t got off too lightly yet.

A victory might have forced people to rethink their willingness to let Fianna Fáil off the hook. But second place means they have strengthened their authority to challenge the Government.

Sinn Féin’s support grew from 9% to 13% but it would have hoped to do better, particularly considering the huge swing against Labour.

Its deputy leader, Mary Lou McDonald, said Byrne was “well established in the constituency” which had traditionally been dominated by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

This points to a challenge the party has to build a broader base in constituencies outside of Dublin.

Overall, there was nothing too surprising about the result. It has re-established the traditional roles of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael as the main political rivals.

But while Enda Kenny may have got his woman across the line, the cohesion of his coalition now looks more uncertain.

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