It’s all over bar the counting. It will be several hours before the final count is announced but the reality is that Labour’s Ivana Bacik is going to coast home to victory in the Dublin Bay South byelection.
In doing so she will give her party its first moment of electoral good news in a decade.
Bacik was always expected to do well and was the slight favourite to take the seat in the run-up to the poll. But the manner of her victory is emphatic. She topped the poll with over 8,000 first preferences or (or 30 per cent of the vote), 1,000 votes ahead of her Fine Gael rival James Geoghegan.
It essentially means she is uncatchable. With the count now well underway, she will continue to increase the gap in each subsequent count.
The message has been clear from early Friday morning. Bacik is the winner. We just have to wait for the count to slowly grind its way to a conclusion for that to be made formal.
So what does it mean for the parties?
For Labour it is huge. The party has been in purdah since about 2012 and it has limped from one difficult election to another. Along the way, questions have been asked about the survival of the party in a changed Ireland, urbanised, globalised, with a far more fragmented political landscape.
Bacik’s victory will allow the party to put paid to that trope. It will provide a huge fillip for the party and its leader Alan Kelly, and provide validation for the strategy he has pursued since becoming leader. It’s only one seat but the party’s faithful will now have a sense they are “back in the game” and able to present itself as an alternative opposition choice to Sinn Féin.
It does show the power of candidate selection. Bacik, who lives in Portobello, was the perfect candidate for this constituency, drawing in as many votes as her Fine Gael rival in the well-heeled suburbs.
Fine Gael, like Labour, put in a massive campaign with all hands on deck, especially in the last week. For one, byelections have their own dynamic and often don’t neatly dovetail with national political standings. Government parties rarely win byelections, even in heartlands. Its difficulties were compounded by a candidate selection controversy. Was James Geoghegan the right candidate or could Kate O’Connell have retaken the seat? For Geoghegan, it was not for the lack of trying. During the course of the campaign he also endured personalised attacks on social media and from media columnists, which other candidates were spared.
Still, it is not a good day for Fine Gael. The party did not even top the poll and the result will invariably raise some uncomfortable questions about the leadership of Leo Varadkar.
Sinn Féin is really as-you-were. It did not have a particularly strong choice in the constituency in terms of a candidate and parachuted Lynn Boylan in from elsewhere. Her result of 15.7 per cent is a few percentage points below the general election results but it is still okay and shores up the party’s prospects of retaining a seat in a constituency that would not be a natural for it.
In contrast, it’s a disaster for Fianna Fáil. Deirdre Conroy struggled in media appearances during the campaign and found it hard to overcome her nervousness. The party knew winning was never a possibility but its campaign seemed to lack cohesion and focus, and seemed lacklustre compared with the others. Again it will not reflect well on party leader Micheál Martin, and director of elections Jim O’Callaghan will also ship internal criticism.
Then there are the Greens. This was another party for which candidate selection was a big issue. In the end Claire Byrne prevailed and performed strongly in all the media debates. But her task was to best Bacik and that never looked likely. Hazel Chu, who had a higher profile, might have done a little better but I suspect many Green votes from 2020 slipped over to Labour, irrespective of the candidate. The tally of 7.8 per cent is a poor return for the party compared with Eamon Ryan’s 22 per cent in the general election. Again, questions will be asked and the result will do nothing to bolster Ryan’s position as leader.
Of the rest of the candidates, they picked up low percentages of the vote. The exception is Mannix Flynn who seems to have garnered a respectable 3.4 per cent of the vote – a decent result given that he is an Independent without the huge resources of the parties.