Losing the battle but winning the war?: General Election success for by-election losers (and by-election success for general election runners-up)

Adrian Kavanagh, March 6th 2013

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 Central 1994) and Gogarty (Dublin West 1996). But they all went on to win seats in subsquent general election contests – MacGiolla (Dublin West November 1982), Roche (Wicklow 1997), Higgins (Dublin West 1997) – and in some cases won these in different constituencies, namely Hayes (Dublin South-West 1997) and Gogarty (Dublin Mid-West 2002). Indeed, over the past thirty years and twenty-five different by-elections, a total of 28 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) levels. 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.

Ken Carty on Twitter poses the question as to whether by-election winners pose a threat to incumbent running mates in the general election after their by-election victory.

By-election winner Incumbent running mate losing seat
Liam Skelly Brian Fleming (Dublin West November 1982)
Simon Coveney Deirdre Clune (Cork South-Central 2002)
By-election runner-up Incumbent running mate losing seat
Eileen Lemass Liam Lawlor (Dublin West November 1982)
Beverly Cooper-Flynn Seamus Hughes (Mayo 1997/formerly Mayo West)PJ Morley (Mayo 1997/formerly Mayo East)
Michael Mulcahy Marian McGennis (Dublin South Central 2002/formerly Dublin Central)

Table 1: By-election winners/runners up who win seats at the next general election at the expense of incumbent running mates

Indeed as Table 1 details, runners-up in by-elections seem to pose the greater threat to their incumbent running mates in subsequent general election contests, with three by-election runners-up and two by-election winners taking seats at the following general election at the expense of incumbent running mates. It is interesting to note that the two by-election winners were Fine Gael candidates who were defending Fine Gael seats in these by-elections, whereas all the by-election runners-up were Fianna Fail candidates who in two of the instances (Beverly Cooper-Flynn being the exception) were contesting by-election seats that had previously been held by other parties. The Dublin West 1982 by-election is the bext example here, in which the winner (Skelly) and runner-up (Lemass) went on to both won seats at the expense of incumbent running mates in the following November 1982 general election. Indeed, one of their running mates would probably have held their seats but for the fact that another by-election running mate, MacGiolla, went on to gain a seat for the Workers Party at this election at the expense of Fine Gael.

Candidates who were runners-up in a constituency in the previous general election tend to do well if they compete in a by-election. The general election runner-up has gone on to contest 18 (including Meath East) of the 26 by-elections held since 1980. General election runners up have won the by-election on six of these occasions, with the most recent examples being Patrick Nulty in Dublin West in 2011 and Pearse Doherty in Donegal South-West in 2010. In seven other cases, the general election runner-up has also ended up as the runner-up in the by-election, with Thomas Byrne in Meath East 2013 and Paschal Donohoe in Dublin Central 2009 being the most recent examples of this. All the candidates in this category subsequently went on to win a Dail seat in a later general election, which may augur well for Thomas Byrne’s chances at the next general election. As well as Donohoe, this group includes Dick Roche, Billy Kelleher, John Dennehy, Eileen Lemass and Dinny McGinley. The worst by election performance of a general election runner-up came from Labour’s James Somers, who was runner-up in Dublin Central in the November 1982 general election but only finished in fifth place in that constituency in the November 1983 by-election and would never contest another Dail election.


About Adrian Kavanagh

Lecturer at the Maynooth University Department of Geography. Email: adrian.p.kavanagh@mu.ie
This entry was posted in by-election, Candidates and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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