By-election winners and losers, 1980-2014

Adrian Kavanagh, 6th October 2014

Reviewing the past three decades of by-election results shows that government parties have tended to fare poorly in by-election contests (although three of the last four 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 28 contests involved, but haven’t won a by-election since the 1996 Dublin West by-election.
  • Fine Gael have won 9 by-elections and have won 6 of the 15 by-election contests held since 1997.
  • Labour have won 4 by-election contests – 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 of these by-election contests, with both wins being registered in 1994.
  • Sinn Fein have won one by-election contest (Donegal South-West in 2010) to date during this period.
  • Non-party/smaller party candidates won five by-election contests (including the 2000 Tipperary South by-election win by Seamus Healy of the Workers and Unemployed Action Group and the 2014 Dublin West by-election win by Ruth Coppinger of the Socialist Party).

Female candidates have fared relatively well in these by-election contests. Female candidates, such as Helen McEntee (Meath East 2013), Gabrielle McFadden (Longford-Westmeath 2014) and Ruth Coppinger (Dublin West 2014) have won ten of these by-election contests (35.7%), 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 eleven by-election wins (39.3% of all by-elections) over the past three decades and 9 by-election wins (60%) in all of the by-election 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 1982-2014 period had been held by non-government parties/groupings in eighteen cases and by government parties in ten cases. In the eighteen cases where the vacant seat had been held by non-government parties/groupings the seat was won by candidates representing these parties/groupings in ten of these cases (55.6% of all cases). By contrast, in the ten cases where the vacant seat had been held by government parties the seat was won by a candidate representing that party on just four occasions (40.0% 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.

Family members have sought to contest the seat being vacated in 13 of the 30 by-elections  (43.3%) contested since 1980 (and also including the upcoming Dublin South-West and Roscommon-South Leitrim contests). In most cases, these by-elections have resulted from the death of a close family member, with the 1994 Mayo West by election proving the only exception here during this (1980-2014) time period. A family member has won the by-election contest on 8 of these 13 different occasions (61.5%). Family members have contested by-elections over the 1980-2014 period for government parties on 5 occasions and won just 2 of these, with both these wins occurring during the lifetime of the present Dail (Meath East 2013, Longford-Westmeath 2014). Wins by family members have accounted for 40.0% (2 out of 5) of all the government party win in by-election contests held across the 1980-2014 period. Family members have contested by-elections over the 1980-2014 period for non-government parties or groupings on 8 occasions and won most (6) of these, with the only losses during this period by non-government family members being the Donegal North East 1996 and Tipperary South 2000 by-election contests. In the former case, Harry Blaney would go on to win a seat in the next general (Dail) election in Donegal North-East, which was held in the following year (1997). Wins by non-government family candidates has, to date, accounted for 26.1% of all the by-election contests won by opposition parties/candidates, with this percentage likely to fall to 24.0% if both Fine Gael and Labour (as expected) fail to win either the Roscommon-South Leitrim or Dublin South-West by-election contests on October 10th.

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:
This entry was posted in by-election, Candidates and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to By-election winners and losers, 1980-2014

  1. Oisin says:

    Is there any analysis of the effect that amily members of the person vacating the seat might have on the data. In particular, are heirs more likely to be blessed by the electorate and does this affect the data on government parties retaining seats?

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