Carlow-Kilkenny byelection: Turning point for Fianna Fáil, but still a lot to do

Selecting the right candidates for the general election is a big problem, writes Gary Murphy

Carlow-Kilkenny byelection: Turning point for Fianna Fáil, but still a lot to do

So Fianna Fáil has broken its long duck in byelections.

Not since Cecilia Keaveney and Brian Lenihan were elected on the same day back in April 1996 has the party managed to get over the line in a byelection.

Fianna Fáil has had to endure 17 defeats since then — with the last six coming under the watch of the increasingly embattled party leader, Micheál Martin.

A seventh successive defeat, while not fatal for Martin’s leadership, would have been yet more ammunition for his opponents in the party and led to another round of mainly self-defeating introspection as to its future. Yet despite Bobby Aylward’s impressive victory, the questions remain for Martin and Fianna Fáil.

It’s been a good week for Martin. Despite being sidelined by the broadcast media for much of the marriage equality campaign, he showed how impressive he is in one of the debates by destroying both John Waters and Bruce Arnold.

Beyond the redoubtable Averil Power, he was Fianna Fáil’s most energetic supporter during the referendum campaign when most of the rest of his front bench, and indeed parliamentary party, went missing in action.

Yet Fianna Fáil, despite an impressive record in supporting gay rights going back two decades, will get little credit for the passing of the referendum. Such are the vagaries of politics.

And local politics had everything to do with the choice of Bobby Aylward to be Fianna Fáil’s standard bearer in Carlow-Kilkenny. Long steeped in rural politics and slightly unlucky not to retain his seat at the last general election, Aylward was the safe choice and represents what Fianna Fáil used to stand for in rural Ireland before its electoral meltdown in 2011; the classic epitome of the conservative farming stock, the people who ate their dinner in the middle of the day.

There was a slightly surreal discussion of Aylward’s abilities on RTÉ radio’s election programme on Saturday, where Fianna Fáil’s director of elections in the constituency, Barry Cowen described him as ‘a simple man’ and Jim Walsh advocated the view that the party should be putting forward more people like the new TD and not relying on well-educated college types.

This encapsulates the difficulty for Fianna Fáil as it begins to hone its strategy for the forthcoming general election. Gone are the days when Fianna Fáil could advertise itself as all things to all men and women and expect 40% of them to vote for the party.

It faces crucial decisions in candidate selection come the general election, not least in Dublin Bay North, where the aforementioned Power seems set for battle with Seán Haughey.

In many ways, these are battles between Fianna Fáil’s past and its future. Aylward is no one’s idea of the future of Fianna Fáil, yet he was the ideal candidate for this particular byelection in one of the most rural constituencies in the State and where Fianna Fáil received its highest percentage of the vote in the 2011 general election.

Aylward’s 27.79% of the first preference vote was slightly down on the Fianna Fáil vote at that election but this was masked in the collapse of the Fine Gael vote, which was halved.

But if Fianna Fáil is only standing still in Carlow-Kilkenny as the general election looms, the reality remains that, in the electoral cockpit of Dublin, where currently it has no sitting TD, it will need candidates who articulate a different view to that espoused by Bobby Aylward.

In that context, Fianna Fáil still has to decide on what its message is for the general election. It can, at least for now, however, bask in its best news since the local elections of 12 months ago.

Its main rival for the anti-government vote, Sinn Féin, will also be delighted at its showing in Carlow-Kilkenny. The party has been grooming Kathleen Funchion for some time, having initially run her in the European elections of 2009.

What will please Sinn Féin most is that, beyond her winning close to 11,000 votes and over 16% of the vote, she also picked up significant transfers. If Sinn Féin can replicate this performance in the general election, it will be in with a chance of winning a seat in every constituency in the State.

Renua Ireland can take much out of the election. Its telegenic candidate, Patrick McKee, ran an enthusiastic campaign and polling close to 10% must be viewed in a positive light.

Yet the danger for Renua remains that, come the heat of a general election, it will get squeezed between the anti-austerity voices of Sinn Féin and the other left-wing groups on one side and traditional parties on the other.

Byelections are traditionally difficult for governing parties and this one proved no different.

While Fine Gael and Labour bask in the marriage equality victory, they will realise that, at the general election, the narrative will revert back to the economy. In that context, they still have much to do to persuade a sceptical electorate they deserve another term.

Gary Murphy is professor of politics at DCU. @garymurphydcu

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