What do Tomas MacGiolla, Dick Roche, Joe Higgins, Brian Hayes and Paul Gogarty all have in common?
All of these candidates lost in by-election contests – MacGiolla (Dublin West 1982), Roche (Wicklow 1995), Higgins (Dublin West 1996), Hayes (Dublin South West 1997) and Gogarty (Dublin West 1996) – but went on to win seats in subsquent general election contests.
Over the past thirty years and twenty-three different by-elections, a total of 25 candidates have lost by-elections but went on win seats in subsequent general elections. In a number of cases these seats were won at the subsequent general election and sometimes at the expense of the candidate that won the by-election, as with the cases of Aine Brady in Kildare North (2007 General Election) and Billy Kelleher in Cork North-Central (1997 General Election). In other cases, the losing by-election candidates had to wait for somewhat longer periods before eventually winning a seat at a general election – in fact two candidates – Michael Mulcahy (Dublin South Central) and Dan Boyle (Cork South Central) – lost two by-elections in their home constituencies before both finally attained success at a general election in 2002. Another candidate in this category – Tomas MacGiolla of The Workers Party – would also lose two by-election contests in his home constituency of Dublin West but his second defeat (1996) came after he had held a Dail seat for a ten-year period (winning it for the first time six months after losing the May 1982 by-election – he also had lost the 1976 Dublin South-West by-election) before losing this in 1992 and he never subsequently was to regain that seat. The losing by-election candidate who had to wait the longest before eventually being elected to the Dail over the past three decades was Michael Conaghan, who lost the 1982 Dublin West by-election as a Democratic Socialist candidate, and had to win almost three decades after this until he finally won a Dail seat as a Labour candidate in Dublin South-Central.
With the exception of Dublin West 1982 (where three losing candidates – Lemass, MacGiolla, Conaghan – subsequently went on to win seats at general elections) and Galway East 1982 (Ulick Burke), losing by-election candidates in the 1980s did not generally tend to progress to subsequent Dail careers. But since 1994 there has only been one by-election in which no losing candidate has subsequently managed to win a seat at a later general election, the 2001 Tipperary South by-election. Even in this case two of the losing candidates have succeeded in starting careers in politics at the national (Denis Landy winning a Seanad seat in 2011) or European (Phil Prendergast co-opted to replace Alan Kelly in the European parliament in 2011) stages. Apart from the exception of Tipperary South, in all of the seventeen by-election contests held since 1990 there has been at least one of the losing candidates who has subsequently gone on to win a seat in Dail Eireann at a later general election, culminating in the case of Thomas Pringle finishing 4th in the November 2010 Donegal South-West by-election but going on to win a seat in that constituency some months later in the February 2011 General Election.
Thus parties selecting candidates for by-elections need to think strategically – not alone to choose a candidate who will be a contender for the by-election seat but also to choose a candidate who can use the experience/increased profile of the by-election contest to push to win a seat in that constituency at the next general election.