Election special – Dangers of more of the same shown in by-election debates

Election special – Dangers of more of the same shown in by-election debates

It won’t be long now before we know the outcome of the Dublin Bay South (DBS) by-election. Mere days are left until voters make their decision in what was an unexpected by-election caused by Fine Gael’s Eoghan Murphy opting to leave politics. No major upset appears to be on the cards according to the bookies. At the time of writing the election is very much between Fine Gael’s Peter Geoghegan and Labour’s Ivana Bacik. These odds are somewhat indicative of Labour’s ideological slide to the right while claiming to be on the left.

The other candidates lag behind, some in more ways than one. Regardless, most of them have now faced each other. In two debates, on RTÉ’s The Week in Politics on Sunday 4 July and on RTÉ Radio 1 on Today with Claire Byrne on Monday, the shortcomings of the government parties and aspects of the opposition were on full display. 

Debating the facts

One of the best examples of Irish politics in full swing was when during both debates the respective hosts asked Ivana Bacik about her party’s role in government during the recession. Policies it introduced and supported at the time are still felt today, especially in the housing market. Bacik deftly, and cynically, ducked the question, saying it’s more important to focus on the last five years of government. During this period she argued that both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have failed to tackle the housing crisis. Rather conveniently for Bacik Labour wasn’t in power at the during this period. Her time was spent talking about what Labour can do and not what Labour has done to single parents and students.

Fianna Fáil’s candidate, Deirdre Conroy, seemed to struggle with staying on topic when asked what were essentially simple questions. Things are perhaps complicated by Fianna Fáil’s role in the bank bailout and subsequent austerity measures. Bizarrely she tried to take credit for the Repeal the 8th campaign, with her Twitter account also stating as much. Activists around the country must be scratching their heads. A relative newcomer to Fianna Fáil, having only joined in 2018, she insisted that having worked on Repeal they would now solve the housing crisis. Breaths won’t be held. 

With Fine Gael having clearly groomed him for a seat at the big political table, Geoghegan was well-prepared. He had answers for everything — even if they were mistruths — and never seemed uncomfortable even though his party’s record is essentially what people will be voting on. He’s the Irish politician par excellence, then. Harsh truths are never uncomfortable, as they can always spin better mistruths. A founding member of Renua, from a privileged background and having worked as a lobbyist for the tobacco industry, he personifies Fine Gael ideology; a man of privilege there to represent the privileged.

Claire Byrne of the Greens trotted out the usual talking points about the party entering government to tackle climate collapse and the housing crisis. Such comments are reminiscent of Labour apologists in recent years who have justified the party’s actions when in coalition by arguing Joan Burton and company had been a moderating force on Fine Gael. As for climate change, the party’s Climate Action Bill is nothing short of anaemic. And the housing situation has gone from bad to worse with no end in sight. The party has acted as the mudguard for the two bigger parties and a wipeout in the general elections is very much a possibility. Her current polling numbers at 11% reflect this. Calling for her transfers to go to Bacik won’t do her or her party any favours in the minds of the wider population.

On Sinn Féin’s side Lynn Boylan was strong and to the point. The party rarely gets a fair shake in the press. But Boylan was on strong ground, even when Lawlor asked the expected question about the Special Criminal Court. On multiple occasions she had to point out to the others the failings of their respective parties on housing and particularly the failings of the Greens in terms of the environment. Having served as an MEP for the constituency she knows the area well and the concerns of its residents. Polling has her coming a distant third behind Geoghegan and Bacik.

Brigid Purcell and Sarah Durcan, respectively of People Before Profit (PBP) and the Social Democrats, make up the rest of the viable opposition. Neither have any chance of success. This is especially a pity given the need for younger voices, such as Purcell’s, where important society-wide decisions are made. It’s also an indictment of the current system. For some people PBP’s policies seem pie in the sky. For others, they don’t go far enough. Durcan’s party falls into the latter camp for many. Although very much in the political centre it is, for now, untainted by the capitulation associated with the Greens and Labour even though their respective policies and ideologies aren’t entirely dissimilar.

Apathy and extremism

In view of all of this it appears that Fine Gael may have it in the bag, especially considering Geoghegan’s pedigree and the economic realities of the constituency itself. 

A Labour victory might be touted by the party as a victory for progressive politics. But the party has been rightly tainted by its actions when in coalition with Fine Gael and its shift to the centre-right. Polling close to or on a par with Fine Gael in a stronghold for the party isn’t the victory Labour thinks it is. Also indicative of the party’s actual politics is the fact that Joan Burton’s former chief of staff could jump ship to Fine Gael without concern, showing the ideological similarities between the two parties.

Nonetheless, DBS is a decent indicator of which way the political wind is blowing. And, if anything, it adds further credence to the polls which show Sinn Féin on the ascent. Of course in a general election things are different given the stakes are higher. Any potential success on the part of the opposition will also depend on people having not lost faith in the current political system. The last 15 months of the pandemic have strained the confidence in Irish politics of many individuals though. From the National Maternity Hospital to the Mother and Baby Homes, to the government’s handling of the pandemic, people’s patience has been sorely tested.

A Fine Gael win could solidify this belief that nothing changes in Irish politics. It could also be a boon to the opposition, especially Sinn Féin, as they claim to represent real change. In this sense it would end up being a pyrrhic victory for Fine Gael, having successfully run a candidate whose life is a world away from the concerns of most and thus alienate ever more of the electorate.

Into the political gap caused by anger and apathy conspiracy theorists and various extremists pour. It’s important to be aware of the potential consequences. The National Party isn’t running a candidate for nothing.

As we’ve written time and again, the Sweden Democrats, a group originally favoured by Swedish neo-Nazis, is now one of the largest parties in Sweden. If the social democratic haven of Sweden — even if it was somewhat overstated — could produce this kind of result it’s not a huge leap to imagine similar, if not worse, could happen here. In a country where equality and social justice were never high on the agenda of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, extremists can easily take advantage. The only thing that’s surprising is that they’ve yet to have any major political success to date. 

Thursday’s by-election isn’t just a mundane box-ticking democratic exercise. The consequences will be felt for months and possibly years to come. Extremist elements in the state will be hoping that the coalition hobbles along for the next five years so they can successfully propagandise and recruit new followers. There’s a lot to play for in DBS with this in mind. And far more than a single seat up for grabs in south Dublin would ever suggest.

Featured image via Twitter – The Week in Politics

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One thought on “Election special – Dangers of more of the same shown in by-election debates

  1. This was a highly slanted article that I found so disappointing to read, featuring a subtle taste of the classic “every one who doesn’t pass my ideological purity test is right wing or right wing lite” type thinking that plagues so many on the left. The writer(s) on this website do excellent writing and research on behind the scenes movements on the far right in Ireland, but when they turn their sights on, for lack of a better term, “normal politics”, the result can be rather underwhelming.

    Firstly, the analysis that Bacik’s successful polling in DBS is evidence that Labour is now “centre-right” is so trite and ideological. Not that I want to be tripping over myself to defend Labour, but when they’re clubbed over the head like this, I’m afraid I’ve to speak up.

    I’m sure the writer of this article was an adamant pro-repealer in 2016; how does the writer mentally justify the idea that people like Ivana Bacik were extremely important and positive in Irish politics when campaigning for repeal, but are now someone to be torn down because they’re not quite close enough to them on the political spectrum?

    It *has* to be that ultra-rich posh DBS voters see Bacik as being the closest thing to Fine Gael also in the running, *not* that Bacik is a intelligent woman with a fundamentally sound cv and excellent record on progressive values. It couldn’t be that Bacik’s values and experience place her well ahead of the rest of the field, almost all of whom lack any serious experience in legislating in Ireland. How very feminist to only value women when they’re advancing your goals and to completely dismiss what they bring to the table as individuals when they don’t.

    “Nonetheless, DBS is a decent indicator of which way the political wind is blowing. And, if anything, it adds further credence to the polls which show Sinn Féin on the ascent.”

    Almost every other media outlet in Ireland has pointed out that this by-election is *not* an indicator of national trends, but instead more reflective of local issues and the personalities of the candidates. That’s one of the reasons Bacik is able to far outpoll what Labour is doing nationally, which is only 3%.

    “It could also be a boon to the opposition, especially Sinn Féin, as they claim to represent real change. In this sense it would end up being a pyrrhic victory for Fine Gael, having successfully run a candidate whose life is a world away from the concerns of most and thus alienate ever more of the electorate.”

    What sort of rationalising is this? I guess that since you’ve already decided that FG are going to win this by-election, your mind has already moved to trying to figure out a way for this to be a good thing for SF?

    If SF don’t win this, (and it looks likely they will not), it will reflect that they took Lynn Boylan out of Tallaght in Dublin South-West where she’s been loyally and diligently building a base up for many years and stuck her into another constituency which already had a “controversy” over “parachuting candidates”. Kate O’Connell, as was widely reported by numerous newspapers, suffered from highly parochial attitudes about the fact she was not originally from the area and how the candidates need to be “indigenous” to the era. If that’s true for one woman in politics in the area, it’s probably true of others, and Lynn Boylan as already stated is associated with Dublin South West currently, and it’s know to people that she also ran in Kerry many years ago. It could also suggest that SF’s support might be plateau’ing at the moment (a sacrilegious thing to suggest, I know) or that they simply don’t a lot of roots in this part of Dublin; the party never had a TD from this area until Chris Andrews in 2020, himself of former FF stock rather than of pure SF background, and therefore it’s going to take more than just one election cycle to crack it. Nowhere in your slamming of Bacik and the “centre-right” Labour did you ever acknowledge that Ruairi Quinn, Leader of the Labour Party, only had a seat in the area for 30 odd years and thus Labour have massive roots there because of that.

    Those are tangible factors that can and should be examined by Sinn Féin instead of saying “Ahhh shure FG were always going to win here” and “Ahh shure we can actually do a spin job on this and turn the narrative into acksually this represents how liberal elections are broken”

    This article tries to have it both ways. The writer expresses clearly they believe FG will win, and this will be useful to the far-right. However, to guard against the (strong) possibly that the writer is entirely wrong, they spend much of the article tearing down centre-left/left-of-centre Ivana Bacik and recasting her as centre-right so that their prophecy of doom written in the final section will still bear out. That’s an old trick of the prognosticator; tailor it that so no matter what the outcome is, your predictions will still come true.

    This is a good website which puts out very valuable articles that I normally read without passing comment on. But when I see an article like this I have to say something.

    You think Geoghegan is winning, I’ve money on Bacik to win. In the last 30 odds years or so, Irish governments are 3/32 in by-elections, and in the three they have won, it was only because the winning candidate was a relative of a previous TD who had just died. By-elections are easily, easily won by the opposition.

    If Bacik wins, it will because she was the right opposition person at the right time in a constituency her party has deep roots in. And no, that victory of someone who campaigned for women’s’ rights for over a quarter of a century will not be some great victory for the far-right. It may not be as big a day out for the left as you or even I would like, but it is not some disaster either. She’s *fine*. Far, far too often on the left, we make perfect the enemy of good ie we look for flawless outcomes instead of taking acceptable outcomes.

    If Geoghegan wins, which I sincerely hope he doesn’t, but if he does, it’ll because this constituency, possibly more so than any other in Ireland, bleeds blue and that institutional strength is very difficult to overcome. Again, I don’t think he’s going to win, I think he’s going to lose it on transfers, but I’m not so vain as to think I couldn’t be wrong.

    I think Irish people need to be extremely vigilant about the far right in Ireland, but I think in this article in particular you’re greatly overstating its importance. If the government was to collapse at any point in the next 18 months, this by-election will become only a fleeting memory and whoever wins on Thursday could be left seatless and impotent in short order. If that happens, the ringing of the bells of doom at the end of the end of the article will seem rather overdramatic.

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