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Pressure on Fine Gael but can its blue wall hold in Dublin Bay South?

The high-profile by-election hasn’t been officially set but already it’s being watched closely.

Aviva Stadium 95 The Aviva Stadium is in DBS. Source: Rollingnews.ie

THE MAIN POLITICAL parties have now all confirmed their candidates for the Dublin Bay South by-election, even if the date for the ballot is still to be set.

The preferred date is thought to be sometime next month but with the Dáil not sitting next week we’re now looking at the second week of July at the earliest.

The writ must first be moved in the Dáil before a likely three-week campaign, but in truth campaigning is already well underway.

As with any by-election, there is always pressure on the government candidate or candidates to perform, even more so if the seat being vacated is a government one.

This is of course the case here, with Fine Gael’s Eoghan Murphy leaving the government benches on his way out of frontline politics.

The party is traditionally strong in the constituency and could reasonably feel that, after over a decade in government, it’s among the best areas to defend a seat.

Nineteen months ago, a bumper day of by-elections saw four new TDs elected to the Dáil only for each of them to be back out on the campaign trail a couple of months later.

On that day, Fine Gael went zero for four while current coalition partners Fianna Fáil (2) and Greens (1) together won three of the contests.

Sinn Féin, following a poor a local elections earlier that year, gave a glimpse of its recovery to win one of the seats while placing second in another.

Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar was sanguine about the results at the time, noting that his party had placed second in three races, a good result in a general but not in a by-election.

But if second place was satisfactory in the eyes of the party leader back then, this is certainly not the case in Dublin Bay South where anything other than a victory would represent a big blow to Fine Gael.

Defeat would mean the party has no seats in DBS, having held two less than eighteen months ago.

James Geoghegan Dublin Bay Sth Bye election Tanaiste and Frances Fitzgerald-2 Varadkar and Fine Gael have picked James Geoghegan to seek to retain the seat. Source: Naoise Culhane

The territory was formerly the base of the party’s revered former leader Garret FitzGerald and has been dubbed as “Ireland’s most affluent constituency”.

In reality though, just how safe is the seat and how could the other parties go about springing a surprise?

The numbers

Ahead of the last general election, there were rumblings that Murphy’s seat was at risk in the constituency but in the end it was his party colleague Kate O’Connell who fell victim to a dip in the Fine Gael vote.

Murphy and O’Connell together pulled in 27.7% of the vote in DBS, comfortably ahead of its national average of 20.9% but actually less than the Fine Gael vote in the neighbouring Dun Laoghaire and Dublin-Rathdown constituencies.

In those two areas Fine Gael comfortably topped 30% of the vote, taking two from three seats in the latter constituency and not being terribly far away from taking a second in the former either.

Perhaps the single biggest factor at play in DBS in the general election that’s different to here is the absence of Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, who himself pulled in 22.4% of the votes to be elected on the first count.

With Ryan only an interested observer here, it’s up to the party’s local councillor Claire Byrne to carry the Green banner instead. 

Her candidacy was confirmed by the party following a convention last night. 

One of the crucial questions that may ultimately decide who wins the seat is whether Byrne can win a similar chunk of votes as their party leader, and if not where those votes would go instead.

It’s perhaps this very question that has seen bookmakers placing Labour’s Ivana Bacik as second-favourite, the belief being that Bacik could be the recipient of any formerly Green votes now up for grabs. 

Ian Richardson, a data scientist and tally expert who mapped tallies across the 2020 general election, says there’s certainly scope for the Greens to lose votes they had previously won from both Labour and Fine Gael.

In general smaller parties tend to lose votes when they go into government, so I don’t think the Greens will be immune to that.

If we look at the shift in vote between 2016 and 2020 they had an equal measure of votes coming from Fine Gael and Labour, around about 50% of their vote in Dublin Bay South in 2020 came from Fine Gael and Labour areas in 2016.

So you can imagine that a lot of those votes could shift back towards those parties considering how popular Fine Gael is in national polling and considering how strong Ivana Bacik is as a candidate.

PastedImage-24526 Top party by local ward in DBS, per 2020 tallies Source: Ian Richardson

Richardson explains that looking at local tallies from one election to another can provide a more accurate picture than merely looking at headline figures that only tell whether a party’s vote has gone up or down. 

He says that drilling down into the different areas where parties are traditionally strong can provide a look as to how parties have won or lost votes from each other. 

In the case of Dublin Bay South, for example, he says that Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan increased his vote overall between 2016 and 2020 but that he actually lost votes to Sinn Féin based on tallies in local areas. 

Richardson says he would give Fine Gael “back of the envelope” support figures of 40-45% in Dublin Bay South based on the party’s support across the whole of Dublin, which was 31% as per the most recent Red C poll.

Richardson stresses that there is “no candidate effect” in this calculation and that Fine Gael can sometimes “muddle their communications”. 

He cites previous research on Facebook posts by each party ahead of the last general election where he says Fine Gael lagged behind on “the issues that mattered”.

Richardson questions whether there’s a “mismatch between the message and the messenger” in the form of James Geoghegan, who has sought to place cycling and housing at the core of this electoral pitch for Fine Gael. 

Overall he says the party must be seen as favourites to win and they’ll be hoping to have a sufficient lead after the first count to hold off challengers until the Fianna Fáil candidate is eliminated and helps them with transfers. 

Another person who’ll be paying close attention to the DBS race is Adrian Kavanagh of Maynooth University. 

The geography lecturer and election guru says that Labour “has a great chance” and perhaps “needs to win the most”. 

Kavanagh argues that Labour was always facing a long way back from its electoral drubbing in 2016 and that this by-election would be a good place to show signs of recovery

“Generally unless you’re a relative, as was the case with the McFaddens and the McEntees, you always expect an opposition party to win a by-election,” he says. 

And Ivana Bacik strikes me as a good by-election candidate. She’s lost a few general election contests, but she strikes me as a good by-election candidate.I always thought Labour would have a good chance here whether they went with Bacik or Kevin Humphreys, but she’s a recognisable candidate and that gives you a good advantage. 

Kavanagh argues that Sinn Féin’s decision to run Lynn Boylan shows that the party is “up for this by-election” and that it changes the complexion of the race, turning “what was a two-horse race into a three-horse race”.

PastedImage-90040 Campaigning is well underway. Source: The Journal

He feels the 16% Sinn Féin’s Chris Andrews won in getting elected last year “would be nowhere near enough” to win this by-election but that the party certainly has a chance if overall turnout is low and it increases its own vote. 

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“What they did in the Dublin Mid-West was, in a very low turnout election, they managed to pull out a really good turnout in north Clondalkin, classic working class areas. If they managed to do the same in the inner city, then that pushes them into contention,” Kavanagh says. 

The focus on turnout is echoed loudly by Richardson who says that Sinn Féin has proved adept at increasing its own vote in DBS by increasing turnout. 

As proof of this, he points out that the two areas that had the biggest jumps in turnout last year were the two areas that had the strongest vote for Sinn Fein in 2016.  

Last year’s tally count suggests that the local DBS ward where Sinn Féin won the highest first preference (50.5%), Pembroke East A, also had a relatively high turnout of over 58%. 

Fine Gael’s highest first preference vote was in the Rathfarnham ward (40.8%), where turnout was lower at 51.3%. 

While other traditionally Fine Gael areas across the southern belt of the constituency have a higher turnout still, Richardson says many of those voters are already accounted for.

Sinn Féin’s campaign strategy is easy because if they affect turnout they get quite a large impact from that, whereas Fine Gael don’t have that advantage because where their vote is strongest where they already have quite a high turnout.

stardust-nightclub-fire Sinn Fein's Lynn Boylan Source: Niall Carson/PA Images

If Sinn Féin was to spring a surprise and take the victory they could do so perhaps by increasing turnout in the inner city areas near St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the South Circular Road where turnout was low last year.

Indeed, Boylan has been talking up her childhood in that area this week.  

One issue with this Kavanagh raises is that these areas can be more transient in terms of people living there and registered to vote, meaning that figures around turnout can be less reliable. 

He agrees that DBS would not have been near the top of Sinn Féin’s list of by-election races but that “if it is serious about entering government” it can’t be turning down the chance of having two seats anywhere.

“If you were to rank all of Sinn Féin’s constituencies around the country in terms of strength this is probably down around the thirties, so it’s tricky. If this was a by-election in say Cork North Central, I’d be betting the house on Sinn Féin.”

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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