There has been much soul-searching in the past week following the spectacular collapse of the Labour vote in the Meath East by-election.
The victor was Helen McEntee, daughter of the late Minister of State, Shane McEntee, whose tragic death just three months ago led to the by-election poll.
For Ms McEntee, and her family, it was a bittersweet moment; just weeks after the death of her father she had to make the not insignificant decision to place herself before the electorate. That was not an easy thing to do. Already grieving the passing of her dad, and mentor, she had to set aside all of the devastating feelings engulfing both herself and her family and take to the campaign trail.
It was a brave decision and the people of Meath East, who obviously have an affinity towards the McEntee family, endorsed her candidacy and returned her to Dail Eireann to represent them.
She, in turn, has pledged to take the issues she encountered on the doorsteps on board and to represent her constituents in the same spirit of service as that exhibited by her late father. We wish her well in that quest.
The most shocking upset of this by-election, though, was the dismal showing of the Labour party. Its candidate Eoin Holmes trailed in fifth, with just 4.5% of the vote. This represented a huge drop in the 21% enjoyed by Labour in the constituency in the 2011 general election and was in sharp contrast to Fianna Fail’s 32.5%, which saw Senator Thomas Byrne finish runner-up.
This result will set alarm bells ringing amongst Labour T.D.’s throughout the country. It signals a public anger at the current austerity measures not at Fine Gael, the largest party in the current coalition, but at Labour who are seen as having abandoned their traditional roots of standing up for the poor and oppressed. They have obviously been blamed for bolstering the imposition of some of the most unpopular measures introduced in the history of the state. Labour, in this by-election, were left in no doubt as to how strong public reaction is to the catalogue of measures which have left so many in despair.
The result has been deeply unsettling for the party’s T.D.s and in the initial hours following the election count there had been speculation that there would be a challenge to Eamon Gilmore’s leadership of the party. Subsequently, suggestions emerged that there would be no heave before the local elections of next year.
Irrespective of whether there is a challenge to Mr. Gilmore’s leadership either now or next year, the fact remains that the Meath East by-election has demonstrated that Labour are being censured for the deeply resented measures which have been imposed by this Government.
Unless they can turn the tide in the next three years - and demonstrate that they truly understand the plight of so many who placed their trust in them as guardians of the poor and underprivileged - the result in Meath East may well be manifested in constituencies throughout the country when people next go to the polls.