THE consequences are bigger than the prize as the votes in the Meath East by-election are counted today. What matters more than who wins, is how the result compares to expectation. The blame game may be far more fiercely fought than the campaign.
The biggest political spectacular that may occur is a Fianna Fáil win. The only other serious contender is Fine Gael. Until the last few days of the campaign wise heads with their feet on the ground said the seat was Fine Gael’s Helen McEntee’s to lose. Since the weekend there is a gathering view that Fianna Fáil’s Senator Thomas Byrne may just shade it.
If the people oblige the pundits and deliver a close result that puts Helen McEntee over the line, her party will congratulate itself on a strategy based on the personable daughter of her much respected father, the late junior minister Shane McEntee TD. Their decision to have a campaign in the shortest time allowed by law was wise. If the race was tightening the sooner it was over, the better for Helen McEntee.
If McEntee loses today there will be considerable bitterness in Fine Gael towards Labour. If the Taoiseach is sensible he will staunch that immediately. But beginning on Sunday with Labour junior minister Seán Sherlock and continuing on Monday with the party whip Emmet Stagg and including their candidate Eoin Holmes, there was a barrage of criticism towards Environment Minister Phil Hogan over the local property tax. His decision on what homes are and are not entitled to a tax exemption was in Stagg’s words a “dog’s dinner”. If Fine Gael loses today their view will be that Labour holed them below the water line as their ship was sailing into port.
Another culprit in any Fine Gael blame game is Transport and Sports Minister Leo Varadkar. He manfully tackled Phil Hogan on Tuesday to score the own goal of the campaign. Yesterday’s media was full of his truthful statement that childcare costs could be part of the equation under personal insolvency service guidelines.
In the real world that means a parent, likely to be female and whose childcare costs can’t be justified by her income, may be asked to put a loss-making job on the table in a debt reduction package. Varadkar told it as it was. He said nothing that is not government policy and hadn’t been pointed out by Niamh Horan in the Sunday Business Post and Mary Regan in this newspaper since.
His comments, however, ensured the issue crashed through the sound barrier of the electronic media as people went to the polls. In politics, how you tell ’em matters. That the Taoiseach had to tell the Dáil yesterday morning that the insolvency guidelines now would not cost anybody their job is proof of that.
Today’s result is a test of how successfully Fianna Fáil has risen from the dead. The party was on 19.6% of the vote in the constituency in the 2011 election. For traction to be real it must be well above that today and at least in the mid 20s in percentage points. The high 20s and beyond would signal some healing of a deeply wounded relationship with voters. A win would be a spectacular achievement and signal if only in morale terms that it is game-on again.
If losing narrowly will be a disappointment, the greater danger for Fianna Fáil will be winning today and believing what is written tomorrow. The party vote is largely a measure of the sourness of voters with the government not enthusiasm for a still troubled brand. The opinion polls are only partially about Fianna Fáil recovery. They are much more about a rabid disillusionment with all political party’s starting with the party’s currently in government.
Fianna Fáil’s Thomas Byrne lost his Dáil seat in the last election. He has name recognition and despite strenuous efforts in his own cause was never a minister. The disappointment of being overlooked then has by alchemy become political balm now. He is the newish face of a slowly detoxifying Fianna Fáil.
If the seat is between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the real problem as distinct from the prize is for Labour. If their engaging candidate Eoin Holmes can take third place, they can claim a victory of sorts. They can, at least to themselves, justify should it occur their contribution to a putative Fine Gael defeat. The problem is that for Labour third place is looking elusive. There is a real danger that Sinn Féin’s Darren O’Rourke will overtake them, perhaps decisively. If that happens and Labour is humiliated, after a Fianna Fáil win, the second most significant political consequence will be realised. If Labour is trounced in circumstances where Fine Gael also loses the seat, then both inter-party relations will have been damaged and internal Labour angst seriously wound up.
There is every sign that Sinn Féin is on the march in Meath East. Conspicuously Mary Lou McDonald, not Gerry Adams, has been the face on many posters. This is both recognition of his limited appeal in suburban Ireland as well as succession planning by the leadership. Adams and McGuinness know that keeping the party north and south together after they are gone is far from a foregone conclusion. McDonald’s prominence is a tactical response to the party’s opportunity in Meath East and a strategic response to the biggest remaining strategic challenge for Adams and McGuinness, which is to keep their project intact after they retire.
Either Thomas Byrne or Helen McEntee will be a TD today. The unknown answer to the obvious question is whether the government party’s have done enough damage over the past days to give him an edge. The aftershock of a Fianna Fáil win, should it occur, will possibly be matched by the scale of Labour’s defeat.
In any event the by-election finished last night at 10pm and the agenda has moved on. Today is as much about who is to blame as who won.