Adrian Kavanagh, 26th May 2015
The Carlow-Kilkenny Dail by-election was held on the same days as the Marriage Equality and Presidential Candidate Age referendum contests. Based on the list provided on the ElectionsIreland.org website, this was the 133rd Dail by-election held throughout the history of the state, as well as being the seventh by-election contest to be held during the lifetime of the current Dail. As noted in an earlier post, 13 candidates contested this by-election, with most of these hailing from Kilkenny County and particularly the Kilkenny City area.
As Figure 1 shows, the turnout level for this contest was unusually high for a Dail by-election, particularly one coming so close to the end of the lifetime of the current Dail. It was easily the by-election contest with the highest turnout level during the 1990s and 2000s and indeed was the highest turnout by-election contest since the Donegal South-West by-election of 1983.
The difference in turnout levels between the preceding general election contest and this by-election was the narrowest in a considerable period of time, as Figure 2 illustrates. In many cases – as befits a classic “second order election” contest – turnout levels in a by-election contest can often be significantly lower than general election turnout levels, with this trend especially being evident in the more urban constituencies. In the case of the Carlow-Kilkenny contest, however, the by-election turnout was only 5.4% lower than the turnout level in the constituency at the 2011 General Election. A key factor here, no doubt, was the holding of the contest on the same day as the high turnout Marriage Equality referendum contest, a factor underpinned by the high level of spoiled votes at this contest – 2,066 or 3.0% of the total poll. (This level, admittedly, was rivaled by a similar level for the 2014 Longford-Westmeath by-election, which was held on the same day as the 2014 Local and European Elections.)
This was a good by-election for Fianna Fail, in that the party won their first by-election contest since the 1996 by-elections in Donegal North-East and Dublin West. This was easily the contest that the party was best placed to win during the lifetime of this Dail. The party had attained its highest share of the vote in this constituency at the 2011 General Election, while it did not face a similarly strong challenge from an Opposition party, or grouping, as it had faced in Roscommon-South Leitrim, given the strength of the Flanagan/Fitzmaurice grouping in that constituency. Moreover, there is a tendency for by-election contests to be won by the runner-up at the preceding general election contest in that constituency – as has happened on five occasions since the 1997 General Election – and this again proved to be the case with Bobby Aylward going on to win this contest.
All in all, the party was very much helped by geography in this contest. While Bobby Aylward tended to be the strongest, or one of the strongest, candidate in the different electoral areas across the constituency, as Figure 3 shows, he polled especially well in his home base in the Piltown electoral area in south Kilkenny, where he was the only local candidate contesting this election. Based on the excellent tally figure information provided via Mark Moloney’s Twitter page, Aylward took nearly four and a half thousand votes in the Piltown electoral area, which was close enough to the margin by which he lead David Fitzgerald on the first count. Outside of his Pilltown base, Aylward’s next strongest was focused on the other major rural constituency in Kilkenny county, the Castlecomer electoral area in the north of the county, while he fared less well in Kilkenny City – in part due to the large number of local candidates in this area – and even less well in Carlow. David Fitzgerald also polled strongest in his home base (Kilkenny City West), albeit not to the same degree as Aylward in Piltown with this in part being due to the number of other local candidates running from this area. There were less notable geographical variations evident in his vote than was the case for Aylward, with a similar trend also evident for Kathleen Funchion’s vote. In fact, she polled more strongly outside her home base of Kilkenny City in other electoral areas, such as Carlow Town, again in keeping with the trend in which Sinn Fein often proves to be the only political party that can defy the normal “friends and neighbours”-style geographical variations in support that are observed at general and local election contests. Alyward won 31% of the vote in Kilkenny and 21% of the vote in Carlow, while Fitzgerald took 23% of the Kilkenny vote and 17% of the Carlow vote, thus illustrating that both candidates were strongest in their home county of Kilkenny. Funchion, by contrast, won a higher percentage share of the vote in Carlow (19%) than she did in her home county of Kilkenny (15%).
By contrast, Willie Quinn of Labour was highly dependent on a high level of support from his local political base of south Carlow, given that he polled decidedly less well in Kilkenny. 70% of the Labour Party votes were won in Carlow, while – by contrast – 23% of the Fianna Fail votes and 25% of the Fine Gael votes were won in Carlow. While Quinn took 15% of the Carlow vote, he could only take 3% of the votes case in Kilkenny – a major factor accounting for his polling below the Sinn Fein and Renua Ireland candidates at this election. Malcolm Noonan of the Green Party and Patrick McKee of Renua Ireland both won their highest share of the vote in their home base of Kilkenny City West, but were less dependent on their home base than proved to be the case with Quinn. McKee, in particular, succeeded in winning at least 5% of the vote in all of the different electoral areas – taking 8% of the vote in Carlow and 10% of the vote in Kilkenny. Indeed, he rivaled Kathleen Funchion in terms of the degree to which his his vote was geographically dispersed across the constituency.
The other candidates – mainly representing left-wing, or anti-austerity, or community political parties or groupings – succeeded in winning 13.7% of the vote in this by-election. (Indeed if McKee and Noonan are included among the Independents and Others grouping, it can be seen that this grouping (28.5%) won a larger share of the vote than Fianna Fail (27.8%) did in this by-election contest.) In a five-seat constituency, a 13.7% would be relatively close to the share of the vote (16.7%) required to win the quota. But it is worth remembering that this 13.7% share of the vote was shared out between seven different candidates, with the strongest of these in first preference vote terms, Cllr. Breda Gardner, only winning 4.2% of the valid poll. Thus, this contest has not particularly established a strong left-wing/anti-austerity challenger from the small parties and independents grouping to the same extent that the 2010 Donegal South-West proved pivotal to establishing Thomas Pringle as a contended in that constituency for the general election which was held some months later. That being said, the large vote share (9.9%) won by Adrienne Wallace in her Carlow Town base suggests she is well placed there to challenge for a seat in the 2019 County Council elections, while the similar pattern observed for Cllr. Breda Gardner (9.2%) in Kilkenny City East – especially given the very crowded field in Kilkenny City – suggests that she is well place to retain that seat in 2019.
The Fianna Fail share of the vote was actually 0.3% lower than the share won by that party in Carlow-Kilkenny at the 2011 General Election, although there were three party candidates contesting the 2011 election, with John McGuinness and Jennifer Murnane-O’Connor winning sizable personal votes in north Kilkenny/Kilkenny City and Carlow, respectively. The share of the vote won by the two government parties was down considerably on the 2011 election, however. The combined number of votes won by Fine Gael and Labour, relative to the 2011 contest, fell by 22,487 first preference votes, or by a 27.9% share of the vote. As illustrated by Figure 5, above, this amounts to a particularly dramatic loss of government support at this by-election, but particularly in a more rural constituency. However, the extent of government party losses were not as large as those experienced at the Dublin South-West, Dublin West and Longford-Westmeath by-election contests of 2014 (or indeed Fianna Fail-Green Party losses at a number of by-election contests in 2009 and 2010). This is in keeping with the usual trend at by-election contests in which government losses tend to be most notable at “mid-term” contests, but tend to be less dramatic when by-election contests are held during the first year or last year of that government’s term in office.
Sinn Fein, in particular, benefited from the loss in government party support levels, with the party’s share of the vote increasing from 9.5% in 2011 to 16.2% at this by-election – a share of the vote that would virtually guarantee that party a seat if these support trends were to be replicated at the upcoming general election. It was also a very good contest for Renua Ireland, on that party’s first ever electoral outing, with Patrick McKee (9.5%) taking almost ten percent of the valid poll here, a level of support that sets him up as a viable challenger for a seat in Carlow-Kilkenny at the next election. This contest also marked a notable improvement on the Green Party’s result in 2011 and an especially strong showing in the Kilkenny City electoral areas show that the party is building up a strong support base in that city, around Cllr. Malcolm Noonan, from which they could challenge for a Kilkenny City-East seat in 2019 and potentially for a Dail seat in Carlow-Kilkenny at the 2020/2021 General Election.