Adrian Kavanagh, March 6th 2013 – updated March 28th 2013
228 candidates have contested the 26 different by-election contests that took place over the past three decades (between 1980 and 2011), although this number does take account of candidates (such as Jim Tallon who has to date contested nine different by-election contests) who contested in different by-elections on multiple occasions. 40 female candidates have contested these different by-election election contests, meaning that females have accounted for 17.5% of all by-election candidacies over the past three decades. In total, female candidates have won 207.776 first preference votes in these contests (22.2% of all votes cast) and won the by-election contests on eightdifferent occasions (32% of all contests).
As well as the female candidates who have won by-elections on eight different occasions, other female candidates have attained relative levels of success in terms of attaining high placings in by-election contests. A female candidate has been runner up in a by-election contest on seven occasions – five of which involve Fianna Fail candidates, some of whom actually won the most first preference votes before losing out on the seat due to vote transfers – and has finished in third position in a further four cases. The 1998 Limerick East by-election saw the first three positions being filled by female candidates; Jan O’Sullivan (Labour), Sandra Marsh (Fianna Fail) and Mary Jackman (Fine Gael). With two further female candidates in the field at this contest, females nearly accounted for half of the total number of candidates (5 of the 11 candidates) and the total number of first votes won by females amounted to more than three-quarters of all the votes cast in the Limerick East by-election (32,846, or 76.9% of the total votes). Indeed, with the exception of the 1997 Presidential Election, this by-election probably represents the best performance by female candidates in a national election. Female candidates also won more than half of the valid votes cast (56.1%) in the 2005 Kildare North by-election, in which two female candidates, Catherine Murphy and Aine Brady, finished in first and second place in that contest.
Four of these ten female candidates who finished in either second or third position went on to win a seat in a later general election (Catherine Byrne, Beverly Flynn, Aine Brady, Eileen Lemass) but a number of these candidates did not go on to contest subsequent general elections following strong by-election showings, including Sandra Marsh (Limerick East 1998) and Sinead Behan (Cork South Central 1998).
The numbers of female candidates in by-elections increased notably following the Spring Tide 1992 General Election. In the by-elections held during the 1980s females accounted for only two of the 37 candidates contesting these (5.4%), although the two females involved admittedly performed well in these contests with Eileen Lemass (1982 Dublin West) and Mary Banotti (1983 Dublin Central) both being runners up in their respective contests and alone accounting for 13.0% of the total number of votes cast in these five contests. Thirty eight female candidates have contested the eighteen by-election contests held since 1992, meaning they accounted for 20.3% of the total (187) number of candidates contesting these. These female candidates tended to poll somewhat better than their male counterparts, winning 26.6% of the total votes cast in these by-elections with each female candidate winning an average of 4,824 votes against an average of 3,396 for the male candidates who contested these elections. The higher relative success levels of female candidates in the 1992-2013 period is reflected in the fact that females woneight of these eighteen contests while accounting for other positions in the Top 3 on nine other occasions.
While females tend to be more likely to be selected as candidates and to poll well in Dublin for general and local elections, there is not a strong Dublin emphasis in term of female by-election candidacies – indeed the percentage of female candidates in the Dublin region (15.7%) is somewhat lower than the national average (17.5%), although the share of the vote won by Dublin female candidates (23.0%) is somewhat closer to the share of the vote won by females (21.7%) across all by-election contests. The strongest region for female candidacies/support levels is the other City Council areas, or rather the cities of Limerick and Cork. In the four by-elections held in these areas over the past three decades, ten females have competed in these (amounting to 24.4% of the 41 candidates contesting these elections) and these candidates have won a total of 62,910 votes, amounting to 38.1% of all votes cast in these elections. While male candidates have won 3,299 votes on average in these contests, females have accounted for a staggering average of 6,291 votes. Not surprisingly these figures are driven by the strong performances by female candidates in the 1998 Limerick East by-election, but these also include strong performances by female candidates in the Cork City constituencies, including the 1994 Lynch victory in Cork North-Central and the strong Behan showing in the 1998 Cork South-Central by-election.