The Gist: Reading the Bay Leaves
The first election since the pandemic, the first test of the parties since GE20. Dublin Bay South's by-election was a psycho-drama played out in leafy villages. This is the Gist.
The Result: Ivana Bacik (Lab) enters the Dáil.
But let’s take a moment to look at what the campaign can tell us about some of Ireland’s political parties.
The most striking thing about Fine Gael is that, despite the electoral success the party inherited from Enda Kenny, they have absolutely no idea what a political campaign is. They just don’t get it.
From the FG point of view, a campaign is when you pick something you’re comfortable with talking about and then ride that out in front of voters. If they like it, great! But if they don’t, well, they’re wrong and it’s their fault.
Here, they managed to play this relationship out with the electorate on multiple levels. The Tánaiste didn’t like the obvious local choice as candidate. The candidate the party got was one who just felt good for the Fine Gael party. His manifest weaknesses as a candidate were there for all to see. But even if they were clearly visible to the electorate, they didn’t matter to the party. And, from FG’s point of view, that’s what matters.
James Geoghegan, quite apart from his inherent qualities, was simply the worst possible choice to win over the voters of Dublin Bay South. He decided to make his name as a member of an anti-Repeal splinter party. Dublin Bay South voted Yes by 78.5%, the highest repeal vote anywhere. In an unusually high profile field of candidates the constituancy’s largest party ran the candidate with the thinnest of political CVs. Approximately 50% of the electorate were women. 100% of the sitting TDs are men.
He was a candidate Fine Gael were comfortable with. Whether he was a candidate who could ever persuade the rest of the electorate to want to vote for him appeared to simply not occur to FG as a question.
But let’s leave aside the candidate, who will, after all, not be the candidate standing in every constituancy at the next election. Instead, let’s look at the FG campaign.
It was unmoored from anything resembling reality.
Fine Gael wants to make every election about the thing FG wants it to be about. Last time, they wanted an election about Brexit. Nobody cared about Brexit- the voters cared about housing. But for FG that didn’t matter. Brexit was what they wanted the election to be about and they didn’t see why everyone else didn’t just get with the programme. Anyone who has found themselves being talked at by a 7 year old boy with an enthusiasm for dinosaurs or Pokémon will recognise this conversational gambit.
This time, they wanted to run a campaign about the menace of Sinn Féin. It didn’t matter that the chance of Sinn Féin winning a single seat election in Dublin Bay South was so slim FG might as well have built their campaign around repelling a Dalek invasion.
More significantly, nobody seemed to have noticed that in a single seat election, you couldn’t win on FG’s 27% vote share. You had to attract transfers. So running a campaign based on attacking any other major party was a strategy certain to sabotage even a paragon of a candidate.
Even as the mid-campaign poll confirmed their main rival for the seat was Ivana Bacik, they stuck with their SF-focussed talk.
For FG, a campaign is like a game of squash where they continuously smash their chosen messages against the uncaring wall of the electorate.
It’s as though the party came in late for a lecture on political campaigns and went away filled with certainty that elections are won on message discipline, having missed the bit about picking a message that people care about.
Fine Gael’s leadership is solid. They’re still riding high in the polls. This loss isn’t a game-changer for them. But it does show they’ve learned nothing from their failures in the General Election last year and, by god, they intend to keep not learning things because that’s the Fine Gael way.
Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner! No party is so in need of a win as the Labour Party. A party with deep roots and grey beards is struggling towards some sort of recovery under Alan Kelly.
But the Labour Party is a long way from being a votegetting brand in itself. This election victory was Ivana Bacik’s reward from a comfortable electorate for her years taking unpopular positions that eventually won the day, while also being a reassuringly establishment law professor.
Now she’s elected, it is hard to imagine the Dublin Bay South electorate turning their back on her. Which is going to have consequences for…
The single FF seat occupied by Fianna Fáil was held by the skin of his teeth by Jim O’Callaghan last year. He was also the director of elections in this by-election, nominally committed to getting a rival party colleague elected to split his vote with.
If that looks like a conflict of political interests, it just means your eyes are working.
In that context, a 5% vote share- the lowest ever share by a FF by-election candidate- might be more of a success (for Jim) than a failure.
But for everyone in FF not named Jim O’Callaghan, it just hammers home their irrelevance to large chunks of the country. 5% would be universal extinction for the FF machine. And now they know that’s all they get, if they don’t really try. Once, you could have run a three-legged donkey with a FF rosette and be sure of something north of 40%.
Without power, Fianna Fáil has become hollowed out. It is a patronage machine which can’t really deliver the benefits of membership it used to promise in its hegemony.
Distracted by the administrative busy-work of government, it’s leadership hasn’t come up with anything this diminished party might stand for, other than being less than everyone else. Less right than FG. Less left than SF. Less liberal than the Social Democrats or Labour. The party of the less.
As the scale of the collapse emerged from the tallies, opportunists flocked about FF, urging it to follow the siren song of doctrinaire Catholic conservatism. Quite what element of the Ivana Bacik electorate would switch when presented with a man in a rubber Archbishop McQuaid suit went unspecified.
Michéal Martin has kept his party from enthusiastically dashing itself on those rocks, and they resent him for it.
Meanwhile Jim O’Callahan’s leadership ambitions are now in the hands of FG’s Dublin Bay South Pharmacist-Across-The-Water, Kate O’Connell.
If we say Bacik will keep her seat, and O’Connell will readily take a seat for FG now if she runs again, that leaves O’Callaghan standing up when the music stops. You can’t be party leader if you can’t get yourself elected.
A solid seat’s worth of a vote share confirmed and a free look at FG’s comedy campaign playbook. There are worse ways for SF to end an unsuccessful election.