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Larry Donnelly: It's down to the wire in Dublin Bay South

Our columnist looks at the ‘could have beens’ and the ‘just mights’ ahead of next week’s vote.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

TO EMPLOY AN Americanism, “decision day” – 8 July – in the Dublin Bay South by-election is fast approaching.

The Irish Times poll conducted this week suggests strongly that the race for the seat vacated by ex-housing minister Eoghan Murphy is between the Fine Gael aspirant, Councillor James Geoghegan (on 27%), and the Labour standard-bearer, Senator Ivana Bacik (on 22%).

More on the dynamics, the final stretch and the potential outcome will follow, but let’s reflect on two eminent non-runners initially.

Could have been a contender

Even those who like to think they understand politics get a rush of blood to the head on occasion. And so it was in the minutes after the announcement of Murphy’s resignation that I tweeted my supposition that the now-former Dublin Lord Mayor Hazel Chu had to be the favourite.

mayor 24 Hazel Chu Source: Sam Boal

I didn’t conjure it up out of thin air. Chu had attracted a huge amount of flattering media coverage and enjoyed a subsequent big profile, ensuring that nearly all voters in the capital know who she is.

Further, she has a compelling back story as the daughter of immigrants from Hong Kong who qualified as a barrister and had a successful career in varied roles before entering politics. 

Chu comfortably topped the poll in the 2019 council elections. Her bid for the Dáil would garner international attention with a “changing face of Ireland” narrative.

But I temporarily forgot Tip O’Neill’s old maxim: “All politics is local.” I did not comprehend the degree to which Dublin Bay South dwellers had become disenchanted with the mayor.

And while I knew she was persona non grata with supporters of her Green Party leader, Eamon Ryan, I mistook the extent of the alienation and did not believe she could be denied a nomination, given all the relevant circumstances.

Yet she was and Councillor Claire Byrne, a Ryan ally, is contesting the by-election for the Greens. One would imagine that there should be a political future for Hazel Chu. Nonetheless, at present, it is hard to see where she goes. She certainly has her critics, and it is a fairly small percentage of them whose disdain is animated by bigotry.

Another non-candidate who should have a future – or, more appropriately, second act – in politics and in all likelihood has a clearer path to it is Fine Gael’s Kate O’Connell.

7125 Fine Gael Budgets FG's Kate O'Connell Source: Leah Farrell

Unpopular with elements of her party’s organisation in Dublin Bay South and estranged from Leo Varadkar, O’Connell had to know the handwriting was on the wall when she opted out of battling for the nomination against Geoghegan, who was out of the blocks early.

But plenty of observers felt that the former TD, as an outspoken advocate for marriage equality and repealing the 8th Amendment and well-known businessperson in the area, would ultimately prove more formidable in an attempt to return to Leinster House.

And indeed, one of the stories of the Irish Times survey is that Geoghegan looks to be considerably underperforming the overall Fine Gael vote in the constituency.

Ivana Bacik 001 Senator Ivana Bacik Source: Leah Farrell

Current polling

Simultaneously, Bacik, who has long been a champion of socially liberal causes that are dear to many of the highly educated and affluent citizens there, is faring far better than her Labour Party is generically.

One would assume that O’Connell would be the recipient of a lot more of that backing than Geoghegan who, notwithstanding his protestations, has been linked by some to the socially conservative Renua founded by his one-time boss, Lucinda Creighton.

It is foolhardy to put excessive stock in a single poll, but Sinn Féin must have been extremely disappointed in the distant third-place showing of its candidate, Senator Lynn Boylan, who the Irish Times has on 13%.

Both Sinn Féin and Fine Gael, by a distance the two most popular parties in the country, saw it as advantageous to portray this as a one on one fight. Their shared wish does not seem to have been granted.

Lynn Boylan41 SF's Lynn Boylan Source: Sam Boal

Boylan is a Tallaght native who has cultivated other parts of the city. The difficulties flowing therefrom were manifest in a comment from a Rathmines Avenue resident to the Business Post once she had been introduced by sitting Sinn Féin TD Chris Andrews to Boylan: “We’ll vote for Boylan, but only because of him (Andrews).” This signals an enthusiasm gap among the people she needs to be passionately onside.

Quirky constituency

Additionally, the possibility that enough wealthy homeowners are so angry at the struggle of their children and grandchildren to get on the property ladder that they would cast a ballot for a party that they are instinctively averse to is not borne out by the poll.

In it, Boylan is way back in single digits in the leafier sections of the constituency and doing poorly on second and third preferences.

There is room for her to improve. And Sinn Féin will, of course, double down on its messaging that has resonated widely and turn out its vote, yet absent substantial shy or hidden pockets of support, it appears that this will be a mountain too tall to climb for Boylan. It is worth repeating that it is just one poll and mightn’t fully capture the state of play.

On the other hand, and allowing for the all-important reality that Geoghegan is in front on first preferences, a crucial metric in a by-election, Bacik should do well on transfers from all directions, and, in particular, from the Social Democrats and Greens. 

4793 Green Party Greens' Claire Byrne Source: Rolling News

Claire Byrne herself (on 11%), despite the fact that her party is in government with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, has expressly asked that those who give her their number one give Bacik their number two.

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In the end, then, it may come down to two things. First, how high can Geoghegan drive his first preference vote total? Fine Gael luminaries have set up camp in Dublin Bay South and are pulling out all of the stops. Bacik is nowhere near as useful a “bogey man” in this regard as the spectre of Sinn Féin would have been, however. 

canvessing 16 FG's James Geoghegan canvassing in Ranelagh. Source: Sam Boal

Second is where will the transfers of Fianna Fáil’s Councillor Deirdre Conroy go? Conroy is hovering around the 10% mark. Geoghegan needs every last one of her transfers and seems poised to get many of them. Just how many could be dispositive.

conroy FF's Deirdre Conroy Source: Maxwells Dublin

Political journalists are saying that it’s too close to call. That’s a very safe, but probably sound, assessment. In light of all the foregoing, coupled with the remarkably consistent track record of losses for government candidates in by-elections historically – although this Government is in relatively good standing in Dublin Bay South – my sense is that the wind is with Ivana Bacik.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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