Tomorrow’s by-election in Dublin Bay South to fill the seat left vacant by former Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy is a key moment for this government.
It is the first post-general election test for all parties and as with all by-elections, it is an occasion for the public to judge the performance of those in office.
Seen as the seat of Fine Gael to lose, given the party’s long-standing presence in the constituency, the party has certainly not made its life easier in seeking to retain it.
The first hurdle to overcome was the decision not to select former pharmacist and pharmacist Kate O’Connell as the party’s flag bearer.
O’Connell, a staunch staunch Liberal for many, was the perfect candidate for a by-election, but she had distanced herself from Leo Varadkar and the party leadership and decided not to challenge the convention.
Her radio interview on RTÉ’s Claire Byrne show, where she let herself be torn apart, was seen as “inflicting maximum damage on her by going out the door.”
As a result, Fine Gael candidate, city councilor and incumbent lawyer James Geoghegan was first on the pitch and has certainly come under heavy media criticism for his posh track record, the fact that he does not live in the constituency and his ties to the conservative Renua party.
Having weathered those storms without suffering fatal blows, Geoghegan is admittedly vying for the siege, but that’s far from certain.
As the son of two Supreme Court justices, Geoghegan has sought to be the voice of the “locked out” generation, but it’s fair to say that his speech rang somewhat hollow to many.
Questions were raised by the party’s decision at the start of the campaign to choose between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin when it was clear that Labor’s Ivana Bacik was more likely to challenge.
Last week’s Irish Times poll which showed Bacik within five points of Geoghegan certainly threw the cat among the pigeons and led to what some have called a sense of panic within the Fine Gael camp.
The poll saw the party switch from a position of Fine Gael against Sinn Féin to a position of government against opposition, in an effort to stop Bacik’s march.
Geoghegan ran a strong campaign on the ground with large canvassing groups most evenings and weekends with a constant coterie of senior ministers like Paschal Donohoe and Simon Coveney leading the charge.
Sending a personal handwritten note from Varadkar to residents raised the bar and certainly signaled a sense of worry that the seat was slipping from them.
Some within Fine Gael have sought to manage expectations by reminding people that the party has been in government for 10 years and that incumbent administrations rarely win byelections.
But they have accepted that this is a major test for Varadkar’s leadership and that if Geoghegan does not win it will inevitably lead to questions about his authority over his party, which is much more fragile now than it is. no time since becoming a chef in 2017.
“It’s a no-win situation for us,” said a minister.
“If we win people will shrug their shoulders and say we were expected, but if we lose it the pressure on Leo will be even greater.”
Last week’s Irish Times poll, which placed Bacik at 22%, confirmed what was happening anecdotally on the doors.
Defying his own party’s extremely low rating in the polls, Bacik’s personal brand has largely eclipsed that of the Labor Party.
She is proving popular and is seen as very transfer-friendly and there is a real belief that she can win the seat, if she can get close enough to Geoghegan in the first instance.
However, polling and wishful thinking among some in the media are not enough to credibly believe that Bacik is assured of victory.
His campaign, led by Fingal TD Duncan Smith, sought to learn lessons from his own 2019 partial election campaign.
The party is trying to make clear the need for 2nd and 3rd preference votes where they can get them, in addition to targeting areas in the final days where they think they can garner votes.
The party feels it has the “Big Mo” behind its candidate.
For Lynn Boylan of Sinn Féin, the poll was a disappointment that showed she is not in contention for the seat.
However, what is emerging from several quarters is that they will do much better than the poll suggested and that their incredible performance in the Dublin Mid-West by-elections in 2019 scared the other parties.
“Outside of any ABU database, Sinn Féin was successful in targeting voters and areas in a place no one else did. They have shown a talent for dragging their vote in the 2019 elections in areas where no one else has arrived, ”said a government official.
Another candidate who has impressed, a little under the radar, is the Green Party candidate, Councilor Claire Byrne.
Like Geoghegan, she faced and won an internal battle against Hazel Chu to challenge the siege, yet some people have wondered what would have happened if the former Lord Mayor of Dublin had been on the ticket.
However, Byrne turns out to be a serious contender. A close ally of party leader Eamon Ryan, Byrne has organized her campaign well and while she may not be in contention in the end, she will certainly do better than predicted by the Irish Times poll.
The same cannot be said of Deirdre Conroy of Fianna Fáil who is likely to come in fifth or sixth place, which would be a disaster for Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Chief Electoral Officer Jim O’Callaghan.
Conroy simply had a disastrous campaign characterized by a succession of media performances on car crashes, including this one this week where she sought to use coverage of a recession to make questionable comments about her foreign tenants in a blog. online.
She has sought to emphasize that the blog is light and humorous, but no one is buying it. It is clear that Fianna Fáil had difficulty in getting a candidate to run and the party has serious questions to ask about its presence in Dublin.
The race is now a three-way competition and will be summarized as follows:
- If Geoghegan is more than seven points ahead of Bacik or Boylan at the first count, he will most likely win. It does not turn out to be transfer toxic as many had predicted.
- If Bacik is within five points of Geoghegan and can stay ahead of Boylan, then she has an all-powerful chance of securing a sensational but unlikely victory.
- If Bacik does so, the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste will both face some very tough questions from their already annoyed parties about what went wrong.