Opinion: By-election points to larger dysfunctions in Irish politics

( “Irish Election 2011 – The Count At The RDS” via informatique)

Ivana Bacik comfortably topped the poll in the much anticipated Dublin Bay South by-election, and it was a well-deserved victory. But it was a clear loss for Fine Gael and a poor showing from other government parties. Questions of leadership and electoral strategy will most certainly arise in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael respectively.

Bacik is a highly effective legislator, activist and dedicated public servant, it is undeniable that she is well suited to the new job. She has a life-long record of supporting just causes. From being taken to court for providing information on abortion in her college days, her support for LGBTQ+ issues, to her dedicated advocacy for Seanad reform. It’s not hard to see why she received over 30% of first preference ballots.

This election was in some ways Fine Gael’s to lose. Dublin Bay South is Fine Gael heartlands through and through. Varadkar’s party also had the advantage of extended prior notice with former Fine Gael housing minister Eoghan Murphy resigning from his seat after 10 years in the Dáil.

Of course, in the interest of fairness, by-elections are always a challenge to governing parties. It’s incredibly rare for a government candidate to win such as race. Especially during a crisis such as Covid-19. However, it is the manner in which they ran their campaign which leaves questions as to the sustainability of their canvassing tactics and judgement.

This is a constituency which has traditionally sent two Fine Gael TDs to Leinster house. After the 2020 election it was only one and now it is zero. Geoghegans’ campaign was riddled with controversy from the beginning.

On the 5th of July, just days before voting opened, Una Mullally published what I deem to be a rather unfair opinion piece in The Irish Times on Geoghegans character, history and campaign. I viewed it as an all too personal and forensic examination of Geoghegan in the public eye, an evaluation of upbringing over policy. However, I agree with the criticism of the campaign itself; “Dublin Bay South candidate has run superficial campaign based on brand of bland nothingness.”

Fine Gael cannot continue to ignore the main issue of our time and abdicate responsibility. That is housing. Even in the leafiest of suburbs, the housing crisis is a source of intense anger for most voters. Whilst some blame can be attributed to opposition parties on local councils opposing developments, the simple fact is that housing prices have surged in ebbs and flows under nearly 10 years of Fine Gael leadership in government.

That leads me onto my next point; the proliferation of negative politics in Irish society. Fine Gael have seemingly decided to emulate a political culture easily observable in The United States and Great Britain. It is one where your political opponent is not just wrong, but dangerous. This is a tactic also repeated by Sinn Fein on a daily basis, Fine Gael would be wise to avoid being dragged into the cesspit of purely populist, rhetorical and reactionary politics. The following Twitter graphic posted on election day raised many eyebrows across the political landscape.

I am no stranger to criticising Sinn Féin, but the answer to every public policy issue that currently faces our society cannot follow the adjacent formula; “Why hasn’t the government done ‘Y’?” Answer; “Well Sinn Féin is doing or would do ‘Z’” It is simply not a credible platform to constantly blame the opposition for national policy failures.

Fianna Fáil performed horrendously in this by-election, with just over 5% of first preferences, one of the worst showings in party history. And really, it should not be surprising. Martin’s time as Taoiseach has coincided with some of the most difficult times in our State’s history. That is an insurmountable fact. Especially when you are part of a political brand which is struggling with a collapse of their traditional grassroots.

An Taoiseach also has an image problem among all age groups. He is seen as indecisive, his party is divided and he has struggled to exorcise Fianna Fáil of its links to the banking crisis. Fianna Fáil is rapidly haemorrhaging support among younger demographics with no change on the horizon.

His attempts to modernise the party have been met with a fierce backlash from the self-interested among his ranks. Martin’s project of dragging Fianna Fáil to the modern centre-left and establishing a sustainable modern base was never really given a fair hearing. The demographics simply do not support a strong rural and inner city base anymore, the rise of migration from rural areas and the rise of Sinn Féin assures this. Fianna Fáil are a spent force if their entire parliamentary party does not rapidly come to recognise this.

Mirroring national polls, Sinn Féin nearly held their ground gained in the 2020 GE, with their share decreasing by just -0.3%. But experienced candidate, Senator and former MEP, Lynn Boylan had little chance of overcoming the odds in what is traditionally a pro-Government constituency.

Green Party candidate Councillor Claire Byrne was not expected to win the seat but held her own, coming 3rd with 8% of first preference votes. She was never going to emulate Eamon Ryan’s electoral success, but The Greens can take solace in capturing a larger share of the vote than coalition partners Fianna Fáil.

Overall, despite Bacik running a great campaign and winning a deserved victory, her competition was largely weak and ineffective. The whole by-election was something of a fiasco which reflects negatively on the calibre of politician available to the Irish electorate. Increasingly, Sinn Féin, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are doubling down on electoral strategies which only appeal to narrow subsections of the Irish electorate.

Justifiably or otherwise, the electorate does not have any faith in the current establishment to fix Ireland’s broken property sector and raise standards of living. Perhaps that is reflected in a low turnout of 35% in Dublin Bay South’s by-election. In France’s recent local elections, an average turnout of around 33% has been described by many outlets as a crisis of democracy.

It is very difficult to envision a single party government within the next decade which enjoys broad support. It seems we are destined for a future of unstable coalitions unless parties can begin to see beyond a single rigid ideological framework and narrow economic appeal and begin to legislate on an informed broad consensus to solve the major issues of our times.

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