HELEN McEntee has established herself as a remarkable politician even before formally taking her seat in the Dail.
Her victory in the Meath East by-election was an extraordinary achievement. And it was not down solely to the sympathy factor, even if her late father, Shane McEntee, was a highly respected Fine Gael TD and Minister of State for Agriculture.
Ms McEntee’s victory, and the slide into electoral oblivion by Labour, are the two major talking points as politicians take an Easter break. The post-Easter Labour inquest into its poor performance is likely to be very painful indeed for the party and its Oireachtas members.
Ms McEntee defied political norms, not to mention more than three decades of political by-election history, in winning the seat.
This Government is, inevitably, deeply unpopular because all it can do is offer a constant diet of austerity to people ground down by the fallout from the economic war.
Some polls have put its satisfaction rating as low as 18 per cent.
One has to go back to 1982 to find a real example of a party in power winning a by-election. Fianna Fail was in a minority Government at a difficult time, but its candidate in Galway East, Noel Treacy, still won the day.
True, in 2011, Labour’s Patrick Nulty won the Dublin West by-election when his party was in the newly-formed Coalition. But Mr Nulty was very much to the left of his party and it was not long before he jumped ship after taking his Dail seat.
So it was in that context – representing the major party in a Government with a poor satisfaction rating, and history very much against her – that Ms McEntee began her campaign to retain her late father’s seat.
Where would she get the all-important transfers?
Sympathy would work to a degree. But it was not going to win her the seat.
By common consent, Labour was going to do badly. Its aim was to come in ahead of Sinn Fein.
There seemed little chance of Ms McEntee securing anything like the 40 per cent first preference vote achieved by the party in the constituency in the general election when the wind was firmly to Fine Gael’s back.
And, yet, she came very close. She got 38.5 per cent. And she secured that vote well beyond the family stronghold in Nobber.
Clearly, Ms McEntee’s work in the constituency, when she was her father’s assistant, was a factor. She had made a significant impression. She was an ideal candidate.
It is always unwise to draw too many conclusions from a by-election result. And Fine Gael should not lose the run of itself because of Ms McEntee’s great victory.
Dissatisfaction with the Government remains very much a live issue.
As for Labour, its woes are great. And there is no point in singling out party leader Eamon Gilmore.
Mr Gilmore brought the party to new electoral heights, not least in winning the Presidential election with a Labour stalwart Michael D Higgins as candidate.
But eaten electoral bread is soon forgotten.
When a party’s candidate loses his deposit, it is serious stuff. Eoin Holmes was a good candidate, by general agreement, but finishing behind Direct Democracy’s Ben Gilroy was an abysmal performance.
And the optics, as they say, did not look good, as Mr Holmes beat a hasty retreat from the count centre followed by a media scrum. Standing his ground, even in the face of abject humiliation, would have been a better idea.
Labour’s woes worsened at the weekend when a national opinion poll put them below the psychologically devastating 10 per cent.
A bit of reality therapy would be no harm for the junior Coalition party.
Labour’s core problem relates to its broken promises. Those promises, not least in critical areas like childcare and third-level fees, were made in the heat of political battle when it looked as in Fine Gael might secure an overall majority.
The “Gilmore for Taoiseach” posters disappeared amid warnings that Fine Gael could not be trusted in Government on its own.
Even the promise to retain the price of the bottle of wine at an affordable rate was thrown into the mix by Labour.
Yet the electorate has seen those promises broken.
So, surprise, surprise, voters who opted for the party are angry!
Mr Gilmore and his Cabinet colleagues must lead the charge towards recovery if the party is not to go the way of Fianna Fail at the next election.
And that means addressing the broken promises. He must go before the people, via a televised national conference speech, and eat humble pie. He must apologise to voters, emphasise what the party has achieved in difficult circumstances, and move on.
That might not work. But this relentless defending of the party’s position, while ignoring the broken promises, most certainly will not.
As for Sinn Fein, the modest increase in its vote must has left it underwhelmed.
The polls are showing that there is a general discontent among voters about the main parties. That is why Independents are consistently doing well.
More and more, voters are becoming tired of the same old Government and Opposition clichés. The implications of that need to be considered by all parties.
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