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

A photo from one of the Dublin Bay South 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

Support The Beacon on Patreon!