Byelection will test mood of public for first time since start of pandemic

Vote could act as a reminder to Coalition parties of the importance of solving the housing crisis

Musing on the forthcoming byelection in Dublin Bay South after the decision of Fine Gael's Eoghan Murphy to quit, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said on Tuesday that it was shaping up to be an "exciting" one given the "potential personalities involved."

He’s not wrong. Putting the personalities aside, this election will be a revealing one and will test the mood of the public for the first time since the onset of the pandemic. In effect, it could act as a referendum on the Government’s handling of Covid-19.

Given it was triggered by the resignation of a former housing minister, it could also somewhat fittingly act as a reminder to the Coalition parties of the importance of solving the housing crisis.

‘All about housing’

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald wasted no time yesterday in telling the public that the byelection would be “all about housing”.

“It will be all about rents, affordable houses and social houses and the ongoing scandal of homelessness.” She said voters could support either the three Government parties “or you can support us”.

Of course, it is not just a choice between the Government and Sinn Féin, especially with experienced candidates like Labour's Ivana Bacik in the field.

On a more granular level, the byelection presents intriguing questions for many of the parties. Much of the focus is on Fine Gael, given the fact it took nearly 28 per cent of the first preference vote in Dublin Bay South in last year's general election.

Lost her seat

It is telling that Kate O'Connell – who lost her seat in that poll – was trending on social media yesterday despite not uttering a word about the unfolding developments. The former TD would be a clear-cut and ready-made candidate but some in Fine Gael say her relationship with Leo Varadkar is beyond chilly.

Waiting in the wings is Cllr James Geoghegan who said he is considering whether to run and is talking with his family. Varadkar said the party will back the candidate with the best chance of winning, which sounds like a pretty obvious strategy, but some in political circles interpreted that as him backing Geoghegan even though O'Connell took more than 6,000 votes last year.

O’Connell, who sparked controversy when she described Varadkar’s backers as “choirboys” who were “singing for their supper”, could yet run as an Independent, which would certainly give strategists in Fine Gael pause for thought.

Meanwhile the news was only just fresh into email inboxes when Fianna Fáil members began speculating about whether the byelection could leave Jim O'Callaghan in what one TD described as a "spot of bother".

Potential leadership contender

Viewed as a potential leadership contender, there may be pressure on him to bring in a new TD and it would certainly prove whether, as Micheál Martin said recently, the recent dire polls are wrong.

If he pulled it off, O’Callaghan’s credentials would be burnished. If he does not, questions may be asked. Yet the area is not considered a Fianna Fáil stronghold.

The Taoiseach found himself telling reporters yesterday that a party will often field candidates in byelections knowing they might not be elected that time but will succeed in a later general election. While he hurriedly insisted that Fianna Fáil intends to win, it was a telling remark.

Two of the party's councillors whose names have been mentioned are Deirdre Conroy and Claire O Connor.

In Sinn Féin, the byelection could act as something of a barometer of its time in opposition and could show whether their spectacular performance in February last year looks set to continue. It already has Chris Andrews TD in Dublin Bay South and there has been speculation that they may look to someone like Senator Lynn Boylan or perhaps a local councillor.

Then there are the Greens. Lord mayor Hazel Chu will throw her hat in the ring and run in the constituency of her own party leader Eamon Ryan.

Tensions had just been dying down after her unsuccessful run for the Seanad last week. If she is successful, there is a question around whether a two-candidate strategy would be viable for both Ryan and Chu in the next election, but that is all some way off.

Other parties such as the Social Democrats and People before Profit will consider in the coming weeks who to put forward, even if there are no obvious names right now.

Two other potential candidates who were keeping quiet yesterday were Senator Michael McDowell and former TD Lucinda Creighton. It is all to play for.