Fiach Kelly: Dáil byelections a leap into the unknown

Turnout in Fingal, Wexford, Cork North Central and Dublin Mid West is expected to be around the mid 30 per cent mark

There are only a few certainties about the Dáil byelections being held tomorrow: turnout will be low, transfers will be key and, for all chatter in the political bubble about who’s up and who’s down, nobody really has a bull’s notion about what will happen.

Most predictions are a combination of local knowledge, canvass returns, the latest odds in the bookmakers and little else besides.

Turnout in the contests in Fingal, Wexford, Cork North Central and Dublin Mid West is expected to be somewhere around the mid 30 per cent mark. In situations where turnout is extremely low, the question of who is actually voting then arises: is it loyal party supporters or those exercised by a particular issue?

“People aren’t interested,” one deputy who has canvassed said, adding most voters availed of his presence at the door to badger him with queries. “The only thing is I am picking up is more work and [people saying]: ‘Ah while I have you’.”

Nevertheless, predictions across all parties seem to be coalescing. Fianna Fáil's Malcolm Byrne and Padraig O'Sullivan are tipped to take the Wexford and Cork North Central seats, respectively. Fingal is viewed as toss-up between Joe O'Brien of the Greens and Duncan Smith from Labour, with a close contest between Fine Gael's Emer Higgins and Independent Paul Gogarty likely in Dublin Mid West.

Fine Gael has put in a huge campaign for Higgins, with a big social media effort apparent throughout. The party has bombarded Dublin Mid West with Facebook ads, way in excess of the level of spending in the other byelection constituencies.

In the week up to last Monday, a total of €2,796 was spent on ads on Emer Higgins’s Facebook page in the week up to Monday. The ads were heavily tilted towards women under the age of 35.

For a winter campaign, when meeting voters is more difficult, targeted adverts on Facebook and other social media platforms are seen as the best way of directly getting a message to constituents. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was also out with Higgins twice last weekend. Varadkar has said Fine Gael should aim to win one of the byelections, and Higgins is his best bet.

She is competing for the Fine Gael seat left vacant after Frances Fitzgerald's election to the European Parliament, and Fine Gael wants to say it held what it had.

Higgins's main difficulty as a Government candidate will be attracting transfers. Even if she falls short, she will be well placed to take a seat in the four-seater at the general election. The same applies to Colm Burke in Cork North Central.

The quiet Fine Gael senator’s strong campaign has surprised some in his own party, and in rival parties, but Fianna Fáil’s O’Sullivan is firm favourite.

Sinn Féin's Thomas Gould is also said to be performing well, and a strong vote for him would show Mary Lou McDonald is recovering after poor local and European elections.

In Wexford, Fianna Fáil's Byrne has run a steady campaign, seeking to stay away from the limelight as attention focused on Fine Gael's Verona Murphy and her comments on asylum seekers. Fine Gael figures do not expect Murphy to win but believe she could come a creditable second.

Senior figures say it is hard to see how Murphy will be dropped from the general election ticket afterward. Varadkar had lunch with Murphy before their low-key canvass in Wexford town on Monday, an indication to some he does not intend on deselecting her from the Wexford general election slate.

Elsewhere, Labour believes its candidate, George Lawlor, will perform well in the byelection.

Of the four contests, Fingal is seen as the hardest to call. Fianna Fáil's Lorraine Clifford-Lee was long seen as the frontrunner but has been damaged by controversy over old Twitter posts that made disparaging comments about Travellers. Fine Gael has never really believed Dr James Reilly had a chance of regaining his old Dáil seat, and there are mutterings that his general election candidature may be reviewed.

Some Fianna Fáil sources say Clifford-Lee still has a chance, but other parties see the north Dublin battle as one between O'Brien of the Greens and Smith of Labour.

Smith has been a Fingal councillor, based in Swords, the constituency's largest population centre, since 2014. Labour sources say his message of keeping the Dáil seat in Swords - the byelection was caused by the election of Swords-based Clare Daly to the European Parliament - is resonating in the town.

Smith will need a strong vote in Swords if he is to succeed, and he will then hope Labour's support in the rest of constituency - it has a sitting TD, Brendan Ryan, and seats in every local electoral ward - can see him through.

O'Brien, based in Skerries, narrowly lost out on a council seat in Balbriggan in 2014 but came second in the same ward in the local election last May.

Such is the strength of the Green brand, it could carry a previously little-known candidate such as O’Brien to potential victory.

One experienced Fine Gael hand tells a story from a past campaign of carrying out polling in the Howth/Malahide electoral area of Fingal County Council.

For the purposes of the poll, Fine Gael simply made up a Green candidate. ‘Mary Smyth’ put in a strong showing of 12 per cent of first-preference votes, unencumbered by the minor detail that she did not, in fact, exist.

If O’Brien succeeds, it will prove the much-touted rise in Green support will carry low-key party candidates over the line in the general election.