Don’t look to Dublin Bay South for microcosm of national trends

Byelection likely to join others as just a political history footnote

The Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll published earlier this week indicated that the Dublin Bay South byelection has become a two-horse race between Labour’s Ivana Bacik and Fine Gael’s James Geoghegan. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

The Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll published earlier this week indicated that the Dublin Bay South byelection has become a two-horse race between Labour’s Ivana Bacik and Fine Gael’s James Geoghegan. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

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Byelections sometimes tell us everything about the state of the nation. Sometimes they tell us nothing.

Back in June 2001, Fine Gael’s Tom Hayes had a stunning victory in a byelection in Tipperary South. For the first time in the history of the State, Fianna Fáil was beaten into third place in an electoral contest. The analysis of the time pointed to it being a portent for the end of an uncertain coalition government between Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats.

Somebody had not been reading the script. The following summer in the general elections Fianna Fáil came tantalisingly close to securing an overall majority in a general election.

The lessons, consequences and home truths to be drawn [from byelections] are either temporary or are limited to the internal dynamics of a particular party

As Gary Murphy, professor of politics at DCU, noted on the Irish Times Inside Politics podcast this week: “In the long run [the 2001 byelection] had little significance. Some byelections are more significant than others. At the time it looked like it might presage the demise of that government. That certainly did not happen.”

There have been 34 byelections since 1982 and only three of them have been won by a government party. Bertie Ahern never won a byelection during his long reign as taoiseach but when it came to general elections that did not matter a whit.

In the first few weeks of the byelection campaign for Dublin Bay South, Fine Gael portrayed the contest as a binary choice between itself and Sinn Féin, in other words, a microcosm of the national picture. As the Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll published earlier this week indicated, the reality of the campaign is markedly different from that: it has become, in fact, a two-horse race between Fine Gael’s James Geoghegan and Labour’s Ivana Bacik.

The reality is that byelections are, more often than not, sui generis. The lessons, consequences and home truths to be drawn are either temporary or are limited to the internal dynamics of a particular party.

For example, it can bolster, or destabilise, the standing of a party leader. Murphy alluded to two byelections held on the same day in Cork in late 1979. Fianna Fáil won neither. Then taoiseach Jack Lynch was the political embodiment of his native city and county and the results undermined his authority among his own TDs. With his two-year government faltering, he stood down a month later. On the flip side, the Tom Hayes victory in 2001 shored up the shaky leadership of Michael Noonan. Similarly, Pearse Doherty’s dramatic win in the Donegal South West byelection in late 2010 gave a massive shot in the arm to Sinn Féin, at a time when the party was treading water compared with other Opposition parties.

There is no doubt that candidate selection has been a factor in Dublin Bay South

At other junctures, byelections have been a little like opinion polls, capturing public mood or reflecting a big public issue at a particular moment. When Catherine Murphy won the byelection in Kildare North in 2005, childcare in the commuter belts was the dominant issue. It segued perfectly for her campaign. Similarly, Paul Murphy’s victory in Dublin South West in 2014 reflected his role in leading the campaign against water charges.

There was another element to Paul Murphy’s election that Murphy identified as significant. That was the importance of candidate selection. In that election, Sinn Féin – which was the favourite to win the seat – traded on the party’s brand. But Murphy had a high profile and ran an energetic campaign which ultimately saw him beat Cathal King, who was not a household name.

There is no doubt that candidate selection has been a factor in Dublin Bay South. We will only know when the count is completed next Friday of its importance as a component in determining the outcome.

Who would have been the better candidate for Fine Gael, Geoghegan or Kate O’Connell? Certainly the former TD’s name has cropped up on the doors (though not so much, some of the Opposition parties have suggested) and even weeks after she slammed the doors on the way out, the echoes of that can be distinctly heard. Of course, if Geoghegan wins, his selection will have been vindicated. If not, the counterfactual debates will begin.

So what implications will be drawn from the result? For sure, it will not tell us the shape of the next government

Was Lynn Boylan the right candidate for Sinn Féin? She was parachuted in and even if she won, it is unlikely she would stand in the constituency in the next general election. Against that, there wasn’t a huge pool of local representatives available in any instance. Realistically, it was always a long shot for the party.

Labour seems to have got its candidate selection spot-on with Bacik. Her national profile was already established and she was early into the race. Her brand is running well ahead of her party’s brand, which has been stumbling along in the single digits. That’s borne out by the findings of the Irish Times poll which show the largest support for the candidate of a social democratic party is being drawn from the affluent areas of the constituency.

So what implications will be drawn from the result? For sure, it will not tell us the shape of the next government. A Fine Gael win or loss will have some impact (not too much above negligible) on the authority of Leo Varadkar as leader. On the other hand, a Labour win would be a huge morale boost for the party. After languishing for so long, this would allow it to cast away finally the sackcloth and ashes of its last experience in government, and present itself as a more biddable rival to Sinn Féin in opposition.

All that belongs to the immediacy of the here and now. If you take the long view, the Dublin Bay South byelection is bound for only one destination: the footnotes of political history along with the other hundred and so that have occurred in the history of the State.

Dublin Bay South byelection

Full results and analysis
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