Dublin Bay South byelection: Where did Fine Gael go wrong?

From ‘daft’ tweets to ignoring biggest threat – it’s hard to claim Geoghegan’s campaign was a success

With less than an hour to go until polls in Dublin Bay South closed on Thursday night, Fine Gael posted the following tweet: "Warning. Big Sinn Féin turnout. Don't let Sinn Féin in by staying at home. Vote Geoghegan."

Fine Gael’s political opponents were quick to deride the post.

It was perhaps the nadir of Fine Gael’s strategy to focus on whipping up the spectre of a Sinn Féin victory in an attempt to galvanise party’s support base in the constituency.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald didn’t take the opportunity to score an open goal when asked about the tweet on Friday, saying little more than it was “daft”.


Fine Gael's director of elections,Simon Harris, later shot back saying: "there have been a lot of daft tweets from a lot of different quarters" and claiming that many of them were aimed at his party's candidate, Cllr James Geoghegan.

But while Tánaiste Leo Varadkar argued that Fine Gael essentially matched the combined share of the vote for former TDs Eoghan Murphy and Kate O'Connell in last year's general election, it would be hard for anyone to claim its campaign in Dublin Bay South was a success.

After all, it now has no TD in a constituency where it had two just 18 months ago.

On what went wrong, one Fine Gael source insisted Geoghegan's was the best run byelection campaign they had ever participated in and that the loss was because, in Labour's Ivana Bacik, there was a candidate who could hoover up the non-Fine Gael and non-Sinn Féin vote.

‘Out of ideas’

Another Fine Gael source had a different point of view, claiming the party looked “out of ideas” and raised the concern that the last-ditch tweet on polling day suggested it was engaging in “classist politics”.

“We’re a long way from Garrett FitzGerald,” they added, a reference to the late former taoiseach, who was a TD in the old Dublin South-East constituency.

One TD said Geoghegan had a good campaign but wasn't well known and as a result Labour had a "stronger candidate" in Senator Ivana Bacik.

They also said that Kate O’Connell didn’t run and some Fine Gael supporters “lent their vote” to Bacik.

The strategy pursued by Fine Gael – to attack Sinn Féin over issues like the Special Criminal Court – failed to take into account the greater threat posed by Bacik, even after The Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll, which showed her as the main rival to take a seat in what should be Fine Gael's heartland in the capital.

A source claimed the party "copped on" to this but regardless it was too late to stop Bacik's momentum and a backup argument that voters should elect a Government TD didn't hit home for Fine Gael any more than it did for the Greens or Fianna Fáil.

Geoghegan, despite putting in an enthusiastic campaign and establishing himself for a future general election run, won little support beyond the party’s base.

Mr Harris was asked about whether there was too much focus on Sinn Féin.

He said Fine Gael ran a “positive campaign” with its people talking about the issues Geoghegan wanted to raise in the Dáil, such as affordable housing and the concept of the15-minute city.

He said that tweet ahead of polls closing was not a “game changer” and it “shouldn’t come as a shock” that Fine Gael was trying to encourage its vote to turn out.

Murphy’s departure

The vacancy that sparked the byelection was caused by former Fine Gael minister for housing Eoghan Murphy’s departure from politics.

Kate O’Connell should have been the obvious candidate, having narrowly lost out in the general election.

However, she announced she would not seek her party’s nomination as it was clear she was “not the desired candidate” of the leadership, adding there were some in the constituency who presented her as a rural blow-in.

Her name was trending on Twitter last night amid claims she would have won the seat had she been on the ticket.

Mr Varakdar rejected this suggestion, pointing to the support levels received by Geoghegan and also the strength of Labour's candidate. Asked if he would reach out to Ms O'Connell ahead of the next election, he said that wouldn't matter as Fine Gael's candidates are selected at democratic conventions.

He said: "Kate took a decision not to put her name forward, didn't seek my support, didn't seek the support of the local membership," and added: "(I) found out that she wasn't contesting the convention on the Claire Byrne radio show."

He said: “It is, was, and always will be” up to Ms O’Connell to seek the nomination if she wants it.

Mr Varadkar also denied the outcome raises questions over his ability to lead Fine Gael to election victories, saying there has been good and bad results during his leadership – pointing to the European and general elections respectively.

He argued that byelections are different and it’s “very, very hard” for a Government party to win. He said Geoghegan held the Fine Gael vote and is “very well placed to gain a seat in the next general election”.

Fine Gael will surely win back a seat in Dublin Bay South next time around, but what is less certain is whether they will get two in what was once one of the staunchest Fine Gael constituencies in the country.

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn is a Political Correspondent at The Irish Times