Election Special – Labour won Dublin Bay South but winning the country is a different matter

Election Special – Labour won Dublin Bay South but winning the country is a different matter

Friday’s election results in the Dublin Bay South (DBS) by-election threw up few surprises. It was always going to be a two-horse race between Fine Gael’s Peter Geoghegan and Ivana Bacik of Labour. Fianna Fáil might as well have ran nobody, with the result being that a heave against Micheal Martin’s leadership is apparently on the cards.

Sinn Féin was always going to poll well. But in this case Lynn Boylan seemed to do better than expected. She may have lost the election but it was still a win for Sinn Féin. The tallies demonstrated that the Sinn Féin surge of the last 12 months is most definitely holding and posing a real threat to the political establishment in its heartland. Voters also hammered the far-right candidates. The National Party’s Justin Barrett and former chair of the Irish Freedom Party turned independent Dolores Cahill both received a miserable 0.7% of first preference votes. Renua’s Jacqui Gilbourne fared slightly worse with 0.6%.

Political calculation

When one breaks down the voting patterns of the constituency the very real class divides in Irish society jump off the screen. Labour did well in middle-class areas like Rathmines and Ranelagh. As expected, Fine Gael dominated the more affluent parts of DBS such as Ballsbridge and Donnybrook. Sinn Féin captured a large portion of the working-class vote.

Yet a narrative has emerged online and in parts of the media that Labour and Bacik won the election based on the working-class vote. Their victory has also been framed as the start of the real political opposition in the Dáil. RTÉ reported on Labour’s win as providing “much needed momentum to present itself as a robust voice of opposition that can hold its own with Sinn Féin”. If Labour is truly on the left, as its supporters claim, why does it need to be contrasted with Sinn Féin in this way? 

The likely reason is because of the political calculations party apparatchiks have probably already worked out about Labour. If the DBS results are indicative of a national trend then Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will do their best to groom Labour for a role as a coalition partner after the next general election. Party members and their supporters have made clear that they’ll do what they can to stop a Sinn Féin government of any kind.

More than a few journalists have also joined in this crusade, with Sinn Féin being a regular target of obloquy for behaviour a lot of the time no worse than Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. And that’s without getting into the Eoghan Harris saga, the end of which is still a ways off.

A geographical breakdown of the DBS by-election results showing Fine Gael in blue, Labour in red, and Sinn Féin green.

Looking ahead

Obviously this is all based on the results of DBS pointing to a similar pattern playing out nationwide. And that’s a large assumption. Dublin 6 is not rural Carlow. Labour and some in the media might feel that that party has a new sheen after Friday. They’d be incorrect in believing this. 

The role it played in implementing austerity when in government with Fine Gael tarnished the party, even if it refuses to admit it or take responsibility for its choices. Welfare cuts that targeted single mothers, young people, and students haven’t been forgotten. Labour became Fine Gael with red shirts instead of blue. This makes them a perfect coalition partner for Leo Varadkar and associates or Fianna Fáil.

But — and it must be rammed home — this depends on just how far we can apply the results from DBS to the rest of the country. And that’s a very large caveat.

As for the far right, its failure was always assured. Barrett even said as much in the video announcing his intention to run in the by-election. It was always about testing the waters and seeing how well far-right rhetoric does on Dublin doorsteps. It’s easy to laugh at Barrett getting 183 first preferences. But 183 far-right protestors on the streets is still 183 too many. As we’ve already seen, all it takes is one to do serious damage. Extrapolating these figures to the rest of the country — remembering the caveats — means there’s a serious problem.

What happens over the next few weeks and months will be more instructive. 

Another wave of the pandemic is on the way. The coalition will hobble on while the media touts Labour as a partner in whatever new potential government is on the cards. None of this will go down well. Sinn Féin increasing its support even further is likely. On the political fringes the far right will also try to exploit the seemingly unending discontent as it has done for the previous year or more. And somewhere along the line, sooner rather than later, a general election is on the way.

Featured image via Flickr – European Parliament

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