So what does the Dublin Bay South byelection tell us, beyond hopefully consigning the term “heartland” to history?
First up it’s the plethora of strategic failures Fine Gael made before and during the campaign. Maybe Kate O’Connell would have beaten Ivana Bacik. Maybe not. But what she would definitely have done is saved Fine Gael from themselves during the campaign.
Not only did they not win, but the party is damaged as a result. O’Connell, who lost her seat in the last election, is a rare Fine Gaeler who can garner support from people who don’t like the party. She has been working on the front line of the pandemic as a pharmacist in the community, vaccinating constituents. Her Repeal credentials are strong, something that mattered in this election – just look at the number of candidates who came from activist politics. I’m also not sure how any strategist could think a woman wasn’t going to get elected here.
Fine Gael’s strategy to entrench a Fine Gael versus Sinn Féin binary was a bizarre move, considering Bacik was clearly the strongest candidate from the outset. But the negativity Fine Gael brings to elections superseded sense. I’ve heard a lot of people say that they couldn’t make a bogeywoman out of Bacik, so they had to go after Sinn Féin.
To view the full results of the Dublin Bay South byelection click here
Why? How little do they have to say for themselves that they have to keep talking about another party? This reflex, which they can’t seem to rid themselves of, constantly backfires. It makes floating voters really dislike Fine Gael, and it plays into Sinn Féin’s hands. On Thursday night they saved their lowest point of the campaign for last, tweeting an alert: “Big Sinn Féin turnout being reported. Don’t let Sinn Féin in by staying home.” What they meant was: people in working-class areas are voting. This carry-on is nasty and alienating. On Claire Byrne’s radio programme on Friday, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin rightly admonished Fine Gael for this classist, negative campaigning.
So why are Fine Gael such poor campaigners under Leo Varadkar? One recent moment sticks out. Varadkar berated Pearse Doherty in the Dáil about what the Tánaiste characterised as his performative outrage for the benefit of social media. Which raised two questions. Firstly, why is Varadkar never visibly angry, upset, or at his wits end about the housing crisis? Everyone else is. We’re living it. Secondly, a party that was posting videos of its politicians baking scones in the middle of a pandemic does not get to call others out on performative social media content. Therefore, if the 2020 general election campaign exposed Fine Gael’s disconnection from the electorate, this byelection exposed their lack of self-awareness.
Bacik ran a positive campaign that had depth on issues. This is what people responded to, along with the fact she is a unique candidate who transcends Labour. For years she has walked the walk, and now Ireland has caught up with her. What was once radical, and apparently “unelectable”, is now mainstream, and clearly very electable indeed. This is a profound shift.
A lesser-spotted trend in this constituency is that it had already shifted from centre-right to centre-left. In 2016 three centre-right politicians were elected first, second and third – Eoghan Murphy, O’Connell (both Fine Gael) and Jim O’Callaghan (Fianna Fáil), followed by Eamon Ryan of the Greens. In 2020 Ryan topped the poll by a huge margin, followed, remarkably, by Sinn Féin’s Chris Andrews, and only then Murphy and O’Callaghan. If anyone is under threat come the next election, it’s O’Callaghan.
Make it stop
How could a sitting TD in the constituency, with nearly 14 per cent of first-preference votes last year, not get more than a third of those same people to vote Fianna Fáil? The campaign began with goofy videos and was quickly followed by a clatter of bizarre micro-scandals about bizarre past behaviour of their candidate, Deirdre Conroy. Video footage on polling day of a car rolling through the constituency plugging their candidate by saying “Is it a bird, is it a plane?” over a megaphone was a real please-make-it-stop moment. While Fianna Fáil may want a postmortem of their campaign, perhaps they’d be better off just forgetting it ever happened. The whole thing was like a bad trip.
There are two measurements that are crucial to contemporary politicians. The first are the four Cs; calibre, competence, connection, and character. The second is the importance of a politician’s EAR: empathy, authenticity, relatability. Because a generation has engaged with politics through grassroots activism and social issues, it’s increasingly difficult for politicians to lean into superficiality.
Ultimately, housing is the issue of the day. Fine Gael candidate James Geoghegan’s opening salvo that he wanted to be a voice for a generation locked out of the housing market was quite something, considering Fine Gael has overseen the housing crisis, their policies have worsened it and Geoghegan was running for a seat vacated by a former minister for housing who just walked away from politics altogether.
It was neither an authentic message nor an authentic messenger. Voters know their stuff. Irish politics is now a part of pop culture, and when you’re out of step, you’re of also out of time.