Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Prattle of the Boyne

The problem with Irish byelections is that, especially with their typically low turnout, they just don't provide enough data for us to make sound judgements from. Given this, general conclusions that anyone reaches about events in Meath last weekend should be taken with a pinch of salt. With this in mind, let's soldier on. Um, so to speak...

The party to watch in Meath, of course, was Sinn Féin. They were justifiably happy with the increase in their share of the first preference vote from 9.43% in 2002 to 12.25% last weekend.1 In 2002 they polled 6,042 votes on a turnout of 60% and this year they polled 6,087 votes on a turnout of 40%, which is pretty good by anyone's standards. But that doesn't mean that the poll was all good news for SF. The result, from what we can guess from the data, should also give them pause for thought.

First, it's important to regard the result in the context of what happened to Fíanna Fáil's vote, both in Meath and in Kildare. Both polls saw a significant drop in the government party's vote: a fall of 12.5% in Meath and 18.71% in Kildare. From this we can guess that the byelection was not a predictor of what will happen at the next general election.

The 12.25% that the Shinners polled refers to their first preferences. So, the first question we should ask when we examine their vote is 'are SF voters more motivated to vote relative to voters for other parties?' or 'were they more likely to vote this weekend than other voters?' Well, I don't know. My guess is that some significant porportion of the votes cast on Friday were new votes: good news for SF.

On the other hand, given the events of the post-Christmas period, and the current crisis in the Republican movement, it would not be unreasonable to think (in the context of the votes cast) that the percentage increase in the vote significantly over-estimates the porportion of people in the constituency who might vote SF in a higher-turnout election. I other words, a 3% rise in the vote is not a 3% rise in the number of people willing to give SF their first preferences.

Second, it's important to examine the transfers. After all, if SF wants to make gains across Ireland, they will need to attract transfers from other parties. Now, as I said, the data is upset by the low turnout. Still, in the two sets of transfers (table below), SF was attracting roughly 1/3 of the votes that other parties attracted. This is a significant problem for them.

Fewer transfers equals fewer seats, unless the first preference vote is high enough to put the candidate within spitting distance of the quota and I doubt SF are in that position.

In other words, I think the lesson of the weekend is that SF have a loyal and highly motivated, and perhaps growing base, but the perception that they are associated with the IRA, that they are the IRA, means that people won't transfer to them. Until this perception goes, SF will be a minor player in Irish politics.

1 The single transferable vote system is explained more or less succinctly here.

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