By-election results - Humiliating losses in the polls

By any yardstick, the weekend by-election results were an unmitigated disaster for Ireland’s main political parties. Combined with Saturday’s massive protest bymore than 100,000 people on the streets of Dublin, the outcome is an unmistakable warning shot across the bows of a Government showing all the signs of being out of touch with the mood of an increasingly angry public.

On the eve of Budget 2015, the blunt message from both marchers and voters who elected two Independents to replace MEPs Brian Hayes and Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan, is that people are fed up with austerity. While most citizens agree in principle with paying water charges, they’ve had enough of the unacceptable display of arrogance from Irish Water. From its inception, the countrywide quango has been dogged by one controversy after another ranging from multi-million euro computer contracts to a bonus culture row involving performance related packages for 29 staff, each earning over €100,000, a pay regime endorsed by Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Effectively, Irish Water is mired in a public relations disaster of its own making. Undoubtedly, the water charge controversy was a major factor in Roscommon/South Leitrim with the row over the EU turf-cutting ban adding to a toxic mix. Though 20,000 people who can’t drink the water without boiling it first will not be charged, most complain not enough is being done to make it potable. Water is also the key issue in Dublin where the gardaí have been called out to deal with local protests against the installation of meters. Most people believe the outrageously leaking system should be fixed before people are charged. It is worth noting that in contrast with the citizens of Greece and Spain who mounted riots to vent their opposition to crippling austerity measures, the voters of Dublin and Roscommon/South Leitrim have done so through the democratic process, using the ballot box to elect Independents as a clear expression of how they feel.

The same can be said of those who took to the streets in a peaceful anti-water charge protest. More people marched on Saturday than had voted in the two by-elections. Unsurprisingly, the spin put on the results by the four main parties is that the weekend wasn’t as bad as it looked. But they would say that. For Fine Gael and Labour it was an undeniable disaster as their share of the vote plummeted. Following the debacle of the Senate election, leaving the Government without a majority and the Taoiseach with a large dollop of egg on his face, it was a weekend Fine Gael would much prefer to forget. Labour saw its vote fall from 36% in the general election to 8%.

Incredibly, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin claims the party is now stronger and insists, despite internal mutterings, he will lead the party into the next election. For Sinn Fein, their increased share of the vote cannot mask the disappointment of a humiliating loss in an election where victory seemed guaranteed. With Budget 2015 expected to open a round of auction politics as the Coalition bids to buy the next election in 18 months time, the Government is clearly afraid the era of the Independent has dawned.

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