Adrian Kavanagh, March 6th 2013
Since January 1st 1980, twenty-four Dail by-elections have been held in the Republic of Ireland involving two hundred candidates who have won a combined total of 816,989 votes in these. Fianna Fail has been the most successful party in terms of winning votes in these by-elections (287,258 votes, or 31.5% of the total number of votes cast in by elections, marginally ahead of Fine Gael (255,911 votes, or 28.0% of the total number of votes cast in by-elections). The candidate who has won the biggest number of first preference votes in any by-election held during this period is George Lee (27,768 votes, or 53.4% of the vote, in Dublin South 2009) , followed closely by former Taoiseach, Brian Cowen (26,022 votes, or 54.7% of the vote, in Laois-Offaly 1984). However, the late Cathal Coughlan (Donegal South-West 1983) is the candidate to win the highest vote share in any by-election during this period.As noted above, Fianna Fail has been the most successful of the different parties/groupings in winning support levels at by-elections over the past three decades, although Fine Gael has managed to win as many (seven) of these contests as Fianna Fail has. Both parties contested each one of the twenty four by-elections held during this period. The share of the vote won by Fianna Fail in the first decade of this period (46.9%) is well in excess of that parties share of the by-election vote over the two following decades, with average support levels of 28.0% in 1990s and 22.8% in the 2000s. This can in part be explained by losses in by-election support during periods when the party was in government (and the party was in government for all bar two years during the 1990s and 2000s) but this is not the whole story here. Fianna Fail’s share of the vote in the 1982 by-elections (50.2% in Galway East, 39.7% in Dublin West) as well as the 1980 by-election in Donegal (39.0%), when the party was in government, compares well with its overall average, while the party’s share of the vote in the by-elections held during the period it was out of government in the 1990s tends to be lower than its overall average by-election support level. Fianna Fail won 37.5% of the votes cast in by-elections fought as a non-government party, against an average of 29.2% for by-elections fought as a government party. So overall loss of support is evident for periods when the party is in government, but there is also an overall decline in Fianna Fail by-election support from the 1990s onwards.
The best performance by a Fianna Fail candidate in a by-election over this period was Cathal Coughlan’s 56.5% vote share in Donegal South-West 1983, while Fianna Fail candidates have also won more than 50% (and been deemed elected on the first count) on two other occasions: 54.7% in Laois-Offaly 1984 (Cowen) and 50.2% in Galway East 1982 (Treacy). The worst performance by any Fianna Fail candidate was Maurice Ahern’s 12.3% vote share in the Dublin Central by-election in 2009.
Out of government the average Fine Gael by-election vote share (30.2%) tends to be larger than for periods when the party was in government (average of 22.2%). Like Fianna Fail, Fine Gael’s 1980s by-election vote share (34.6%) tends to dwarf that of its average vote share during the 1990s (22.0%), although their share of the vote increases again during the 2000s (30.2%). The growing strength of non-party and smaller party candidates during the 1990s and 2000s can be seen as eating into the combined Fianna Fail/Fine Gael vote shares. George Lee won the most votes, and largest vote share, of any Fine Gael candidate in a by-election during the 1980-2011 period. The next largest number of votes won by a Fine Gael by-election candidates, ironically, were won by losing candidates; Dinny McGinley won 20,022 votes when finishing in second place in the 1980 Donegal by-election and Padraig Horan won 18,173 votes in Laois-Offaly 1984 when finishing second behind Brian Cowen. The same applies to the candidate who won the second highest vote share of any Fine Gael candidate during this period, Ulick Burke who won 41.8% of the vote when finishing second behind Noel Treacy in the 1982 Galway East by-election.
The Labour Party trails some distance behind these other parties, having contested every by-election bar Donegal 1980 and Donegal South-West 1983 and accounting for 107,749 votes or 11.8% of the total by-election valid votes cast over the 1980-2011 period (with this increasing to 13.1% when the two by-elections Labour failed to contest – Donegal 1980 and Donegal South-West 1983 – during this period are not included). Being in government seems to adversely influence the Labour by-election vote to an ever greater degree than Fianna Fail. Out of government the average Labour by-election vote share (14.4%) is significantly larger than for periods when the party was in government (average of 8.3%). However, unlike Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, Labour’s by-election vote share has improved in recent decades (periods when the party was mainly out of government), with its dismally low 1980s by-election vote share (2.5%) being decidedly lower than the share of the by-election vote won by the party in the 1990s (14.6%) and 2000s (16.2%). Sean Ryan accounts for the biggest by-election vote share of any Labour candidate, winning 11,012 votes (33.3%) in the 1999 Dublin North by-election. The next highest number of votes won by Labour Party candidates were won by Jan O’Sullivan in Limerick East in 1998 (10,619) and Patrick Nulty in Dublin West in 2011 (10,264), while the second highest vote share won by a Labour candidate during this period was won by Mary Upton in the 1998 Dublin South-Central by-election (28.0%). The lowest number of votes (and share of the vote) won by any Labour Party candidate was the 703 votes (1.6%) for Brendan O’Sullivan in Dublin West 1982.
Sinn Fein candidates, who contested just over half (14) of the by-elections held since 1980 won 41,598 votes (with Pearse Doherty’s 2010 Donegal South-West vote (13,719) accounting for almost one-third of all these votes to date) and 4.6% of the total number of valid by-election votes cast during this period. The percentage Sinn Fein vote share increases to 8.4% when the analysis only focuses on the by-elections that the party contested and the Sinn Fein by-election vote share increases even further to 14.2% when focusing solely on by-elections contested by the party during the 2000s. This stresses the point that the party’s performances in recent by-election contests have been much stronger than those in earlier contests held during the 1980s and 1990s. Pearse Doherty accounts for the biggest by-election vote share of any Sinn Fein candidate, winning 13,719 votes (39.9%) in the 2010 Donegal South-West by-election. The next highest number of votes (and percentage vote share) won by a Sinn Fein candidate in a by-election was won by Joe Reilly in the 2005 Meath by-election (6,087 first preference votes – 12.2% of the valid first preference vote).
Green Party candidates contested the same number (14) of the by-elections held since 1980 as Sinn Fein did, but won fewer votes, winning 27,807 votes or 3.0% of the total number of by-election votes cast during this period. The percentage Green Party vote share increases to 5.3% when the analysis only focuses on the by-elections that the party contested, but the Green Party by-election vote share is only 4.0% when focusing solely on by-elections contested by the party during the 2000s. Despite contests being held in constituencies (Dublin North, Dublin South) where the party held seats at the time of a by-election, the party’s two best by-election performances are both accounted for by Dan Boyles in his 1994 and 1998 Cork South-Central by-election contests, with Boyle winning 6,677 votes (15.8%) in the 1994 election. Apart from Dan Boyle, no other Green candidate has won more than two thousand first preference votes or more than 7.0% of the total votes in any by-election contest.
The Socialist Party have only contested three by-elections during this period – Dublin West 1996, Dublin North 1998 and Dublin West 2011 – and won a total of 16,977 votes across the three contests, accounting for 1.9% of all valid by-election votes cast during the 1980-2011 period but accounting for a significant 17.5% of all valid votes casts in the three by-election contests that the party contested. Ruth Coppinger’s 7,542 votes in the 2011 Dublin West contest accounts for the largest number of first preference votes won by a Socialist Party candidates across these contests, but the highest percentage vote share won by a Socialist Party candidate was won by Joe Higgins (23.7%) in the 1996 Dublin West by-election.