Whenever Irish politicians fear the people they put democracy on ice

SINCE Dáil Éireann was established in 1919 there have been 125 by-elections. All but 11 of those were held within six months of the vacancy occurring. But the current Dáil has three vacancies, two of which are already more than six months old and the third well over a year and heading for a record delay.

The first by-election that was held after a six-month delay was a disputed vacancy in 1928. James Larkin, the first avowed communist elected to Dáil Eireann, was disqualified due to bankruptcy.

His case took some time to resolve as the opposition resisted efforts to call a by-election. Larkin had lost a libel case taken by the labour organiser William O’Brien in 1924, and he had refused to pay the costs, with the result that he was declared a bankrupt by the High Court that year.

He was therefore deemed ineligible for election to the Dáil on September 15, 1927, because he had not discharged the bankruptcy.

Éamon de Valera, the Fianna Fáil leader, sought to delay proceedings by referring them to the courts and arguing that Kathleen Clarke, the widow of the 1916 leader, should be deemed elected because she was the unsuccessful candidate with the most votes in the constituency, but the Government forced through a by-election. Cumann nGaedheal duly won the seat on April 3, 1928 – six months and little under two weeks after the general election.

Prior to the 1990s more than 94% of the by-elections were held within six months. Only six of the 108 by-elections overran that timespan. The longest delay was almost 10 months – from February 7 to December 4, 1945 when five by-elections were held on the same day.

Since the beginning of the 1990s the longest delay of all followed the appointment of Pádraig Flynn to the European Commission on January 4, 1993. The by-election was not held until June 9, 1994, which was more than 17 months later. At the time Fianna Fáil were in coalition with the Labour Party. Was the delay because Fianna Fáil was afraid of losing the by-election? Michael Ring of Fine Gael duly won the seat.

The last by-election won by any government party was back on July 20, 1982 when Noel Tracy retained the Galway East seat for Fianna Fáil in a contest necessitated by the death of John Callanan.

At the time the Dáil was on a knife-edge with Charles Haughey in power, partly thanks to an infamous deal for the support of the late Tony Gregory. That by-election was called just 35 days after Callanan’s death. Two by-elections have been held during the current Dáil to fill vacancies caused by the deaths of Seamus Brennan and Tony Gregory.

Those by-elections were held in conjunction with the European and local elections of 2009. George Lee of Fine Gael won the Dublin South seat only to resign from the Dáil in disgust eight months later – in February of this year. Martin Cullen of Fianna Fáil resigned his seat on health grounds the following month.

There are, therefore, three vacancies in the current Dáil because Pat ‘the Cope’ Gallagher had to resign following his election to the European Parliament on June 5, 2009. His seat has remained vacant now for 16 months and 18 days, which means that even if the by-election were called next week it could not be held until after the record delay to fill Pádraig Flynn’s seat had been surpassed.

It is also well over six months since the other two vacancies occurred. Such delays really undermine the very essence of representative democracy and the republic. Will some twit in government suggest next that they suspend the Dáil altogether for a term as a cost-saving measure?

Senator Pearse Doherty appealed to the High Court to ensure that the date for a by-election to fill the Donegal South West seat is conducted without further delay. By comparison with the hypocrites in Fianna Fáil, even Sinn Féin is now looking positively republican.

The three current vacancies in the Dáil were caused by resignations. Prior to Fianna Fáil’s entry into the Dáil in 1927 all but four of the 21 by-elections held during the lifetime of the fourth Dáil were necessitated by resignations or disqualifications rather than deaths. Henry Coyle was ousted after he was jailed for fraud in 1924, while Alfred O’Rahilly and Richard Hayes resigned because they had become disillusioned with the Dáil.

O’Rahilly – who went on to become president of University College, Cork – never actually spoke in the Dáil before resigning on August 1, 1924. For his part, Richard Hayes later became film censor and director of the Abbey Theatre.

The greatest number of by-elections ever held on one day was nine on March 11, 1925. Little over four months earlier nine deputies had resigned from the Dáil in protest over the refusal of the Cumann na nGaedheal government to reinstate army officers purged the previous year following the Army Mutiny.

History tells us Cumann na nGaedheal was lucky to survive an early vote of no confidence in the fifth Dáil, after one opposition deputy failed to show up and the vote ended in a tie, allowing the speaker to save the government with his vote. There were two crucial by-elections the following week to fill vacancies caused by the deaths of Kevin O’Higgins of Cumann na nGaedheal and Constance Markievicz of Fianna Fáil. Cumann na nGaedheal won both seats and Cosgrave called another general election.

The first three by-elections of the sixth Dáil were due to rather bizarre resignations. Probably very few people know that WT Cosgrave resigned his Dáil seat in Carlow-Kilkenny in 1927. He had also won a seat in Cork Borough, so he resigned the safer seat to make way for a colleague to win that by-election.

AS I mentioned earlier, Jim Larkin’s seat was declared vacant due to his bankruptcy, and Alfie Byrne, the colourful Dubliner, resigned his seat when he was elected to the Seanad. The government won all three by-elections. Even in those difficult times the Dáil was able to hold by-elections within six months. So there is no excuse for what is happening now.

Fianna Fáil is the worst violator because it has been in power for no less than 10 of the 11 by-elections that were delayed by more than six months. Of course, it has done its worst with the cooperation of the Greens and the Labour party. Moreover, when it comes to self-interest Fine Gael is currently demonstrating that it is prepared to play the same game.

It could have moved the writ for the Dublin South by-election to fill George Lee’s seat, but it is playing procrastinating politics too because Labour would likely win that seat. On this issue, Fine Gael has essentially jumped into bed with Fianna Fáil and the Green party.

All of this confirms the need for the kind of legislation introduced earlier this year by Fine Gael for vacancies to be filled within six months, but the Government blocked it. Hopefully, the High Court will now have the guts and integrity to defend people’s democratic rights. Otherwise, we are in even more trouble because all of the parties have demonstrated that our democracy is expendable to party interests.

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