By-election winners and losers, 1980-2013

Adrian Kavanagh, 24th April 2014

Reviewing the past three decades of by-election results shows that government parties have tended to fare poorly in by-election contests (although the last two by-elections have been won by government parties), but does certain parties or groupings tend to do especially well/poorly in these? A review of by-election winners since 1980 shows that:

  • Fianna Fail have won 7 of the 26 contests involved (but haven’t won a by-election since the 1996 Dublin West by-election),
  • Fine Gael have won 8 by-elections (and have won 5 of the 13 contests held since 1997),
  • Labour have won 4 (most of these victories were concentrated over the 1998/1999 period, although the party won a further contest in 2011),
  • Democratic Left have won 2 (both wins in 1994),
  • Sinn Fein have won one (Donegal South-West in 2010),
  • Non-party/smaller party candidates won four (including the 2000 Tipperary South by-election win by Seamus Healy of the Workers and Unemployed Action Group).

Female candidates have fared relatively well in these by-election contests. Female candidates, such as Helen McEntee (Meath East 2013), have won eight of these by-election contests (31%), while females have finished in second place in a by-election contest on seven occasions and have finished in third place on three occasions.

Left wing candidates have done especially well in by-election contests since 1982 but especially well in the most recent contests, with these accounting for ten by-election wins (40% of all by-elections) over the past three decades and 8 by-election wins (62%) in all the contests held since 1997.

Candidates representing the parties/groupings that held the seat left vacant prior to the by-election have a good success rate at these by-elections and are quite likely to win these contest in most cases where these are representing non-government parties or groupings. The seats left vacant at all by-elections held over the 1982-2013 period had been held by non-government parties/groupings in seventeen cases and by government parties in nine cases. In the sixteen cases where the vacant seat had been held by non-government parties/groupings the seat was won by candidates representing these parties/groupings in eleven of these cases (68.8% of all cases). By contrast, in the nine cases where the vacant seat had been held by government parties the seat was won by a candidate representing that party on just three occasions (33.3% of all cases).

Runners-up (i.e. the candidates who were next in rank order after all the seats had been filled) at the general election contests immediately preceding the by-election have had a good record at by-election contests held over the past three decades. The general election runners-up have contested the subsequent by-election on eighteen occasions (69% of all by-elections) and have actually won the seat on six of these occasions (33.3% of all cases where runners-up have contested the by-election), while finishing in 2nd position on seven other occasions and 3rd position on two other occasions. The list of general election runners-up who have gone on to win the subsequent by election includes Patrick Nulty (Dublin West 2011), Pearse Doherty (Donegal South-West 2010), Seamus Healy (Tipperary South 2000), Sean Ryan (Dublin North 1999), Eric Byrne (Dublin South Central 1994) and Michael Ring (Mayo West 1994). The worst by-election performance by a general election runner-up was by Labour’s James Somers, who finished just outside the seat positions in the November 1982 general election contest in Dublin Central but went on to finish in a lowly 5th place (13,270 first preference votes behind the winner) in the 1983 Dublin Central by-election, held some twelve months later.

It’s worth noting also that success in a by-election does not ensure that the winning candidate will win the subsequent general election in that constituency. In the twenty cases where the successful by-election candidate contested the subsequent general election(s) (Cathal Coughlan died eight months before the 1987 General Election was held, while Thomas Leonard and George Lee did not compete in the following general election):

  • Three of these by-election winners lost their seat at the subsequent general election; Catherine Murphy, Eric Byrne and Kathleen Lynch.
  • Two of these by-election winners lost their seat at the next general election after this; Liam Skelly and Seamus Healy
  • Skelly was the only one of these candidates who did not manage to regain their seat at a later general election contest (most managed to do so at the general election following their defeat, but Byrne had to wait 14 years to do so) – Skelly was also the only one of these candidates who was not a left-wing small party or non-party candidate.

About Adrian Kavanagh

Lecturer at the Maynooth University Department of Geography. Email:
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