The excitement for the neutrals was short-lived at the RDS as the early tallies quickly told the decisive part of this story: Ivana Bacik was well on her way to a clear and resounding victory.
Yes, Labour activists were – justifiably – ecstatic at the election of Bacik, who is not just a political ally but someone many of them admire deeply. It gives Labour a shot in the arm at a time when it desperately, desperately needs one, and promises that the party goes into the summer recess – and therefore the autumn political season – on a high. It’s a long time since the party felt that way.
But most of the other parties were shrugging: meh, it’s what we expected. Bacik was a strong candidate from the start, tailor-made for this constituency. Halfway through the campaign The Irish Times poll showed her in a strong position to win; she went on to win; next business, please.
Not so fast. While byelection results are habitually over-interpreted there are a few things to unpick from Friday’s results that contain messages about the state of politics right now, the state of the parties, their prospects for the future and the disposition of the voters.
There was no disguising Fine Gael’s disappointment. It’s one of the party’s strongest constituencies in the country, once represented by taoisigh Garrett Fitzgerald and John A Costello. It had in James Geoghegan a blue-blooded candidate who – contrary to some perceptions – has been a hard-working local councillor. He will almost certainly take a seat at the next general election (at whose expense?) It ran a highly energetic and visible campaign. But it still came up short, a long way short.
Did Fine Gael pick the wrong candidate? Would Kate O’Connell have won a seat? She would probably have done better than Geoghegan; Bacik polled strongly around Rathgar, O’Connell’s home patch, and she campaigned strongly on the need to have a woman representing the constituency. But we can’t know for sure.
What is clear is that O’Connell, a formidable politician, has once again burned her boats. Her remarkable refusal to endorse her party colleague – not so much as a tweet – means she is unlikely to ever run for Fine Gael again.
More significantly for the party nationally is that it self-evidently ran the wrong strategy – again. Seeking to frame every contest as Fine Gael vs Sinn Féin is just not working for Fine Gael; it crumbles when it comes into contact with reality because Irish voters know they have many more options than blue or green.
It’s just not enough for Fine Gael to scare voters away from Sinn Féin; it must give them a compelling reason to vote for Fine Gael. This is not something that Leo Varadkar, in his four-year leadership of the party, has managed to do. The muttering about that, quiet but not inaudible, will continue after today.
The results are also a disappointment for Sinn Féin. The 16 per cent for parachute candidate Lynn Boylan demonstrated the party’s ability to get out its vote in its own strongholds, but the anaemic showing in the rest of the constituency shows that the Mary Lou project of broadening the party’s appeal into the Republic’s middle class faces significant obstacles. These are the votes that Sinn Féin needs to win if it is going to lead the next government.
For Fianna Fáil the results are a localised calamity. It picked a poor candidate in Deirdre Conroy and ran a poor campaign; even still the results were dire. Depending on where you stand in the party this is either a indictment of Micheál Martin’s leadership and further evidence that he is leading the party to electoral oblivion, or evidence that Jim O’Callaghan (sitting TD; presumed rival to Martin; director of elections) cannot be considered a potential alternative leader. Indeed, on Friday’s numbers O’Callaghan will be nervous about holding his own seat next time.
Whatever your take on the party’s internal machinations, the entire experience demonstrates how degraded the once-great Fianna Fail machine has become. Yes, this is a weak constituency but the fact that it couldn’t get a better candidate and run a better campaign tells us something about the state of the party. Nobody expected Fianna Fáil to do well; nobody expected it to do this badly. This will reverberate around the organisation.
If Sinn Féin’s vote held up, the Greens slumped. Though Claire Byrne ran a neat enough campaign, she was never in the running for a seat in her party leader’s constituency.
Trying to extrapolate for the general election is kind of pointless, though; Ryan’s name will be back on the ballot paper. In Ireland, people vote for candidates as much – if not more – than parties. Ryan’s and his party’s future depends on achieving in Government the things that are important for their voters. Friday’s results tell us little about that.
Finally, back to the victors: this was an important day for Labour, its best in a decade, maybe. But it would be a stretch to declare that Labour is back at the centre of politics.
The party campaigned on its candidate rather than any strong policy message. If Labour had a distinctive and radical position on housing during the campaign, for example, it hid it well. Bacik was in opposition to the Government, but hardly hostile to it; a more polite option than Sinn Féin. The pitch turned out to be perfect for this constituency.
Recent Irish elections have shown there is usually a wave of support that goes late for one party. In 2020, it was Sinn Féin. Today it was Labour. All parties will pore over these results for clues about where the next wave comes from.