I held off on making this post for a while, waiting until all major parties had selected their candidates. Now that process is complete, here’s my guide to, and initial projection for, the Dublin Bay South (DBS) by election. For anyone who isn’t aware, this by-election is due to the resignation of former housing minister and earth-moving machinery enthusiast Eoghan Murphy (Fine Gael).
Firstly, as usual, a caveat – by-elections are weird. Recent ones in Dublin have been plagued by low turnout – for example, Joe O’Brien won Dublin Fingal in 2019 with 5,744 first preferences. In GE 20, he increased his vote by over 2,600 votes but only came third. Secondly, they are often seen as a way to give the government a symbolic kicking without actually upsetting the balance of power in the Dáil – a government hasn’t won a by-election since May 2014.
Dublin Bay South is itself one of the most affluent constituencies in Ireland, but is sharply divided between high- and low- deprivation areas; something that maps very closely with certain parties’ votes, which we will explore more. It’s also worth noting that its overall an extremely low turnout location, with turnout generally better south of the canal, but still way below national averages.
Who is running?
Short answer? Everyone and their dog. This is a long section so if you already know the candidates, click here to skip it. This is a relatively high-profile by-election, and has only been made more so by the choices of candidates, both for good and for ill. Below is a summary:
- Fine Gael: James Geoghegan, Councillor for Pembroke LEA. A former founding member of Renua, he came back to FG after that project dissolve into being little more than a far-right Twitter troll account. He got the nod here after the local FG group allegedly bullied ex-TD Kate O’Connell out of running (but to be fair they famously hate her and would have chosen Geoghegan anyway). I won’t list off the seemingly endless list of controversies Geoghegan has embroiled himself in – they range from quite serious to completely mad to utterly spurious – but he’s certainly ensured a lot of coverage in both legacy and social media. He’s also an FG candidate primarily running on housing, which is a bit like a fox running on a platform of henhouse security.
- Sinn Féin: Lynn Boylan, Senator and former MEP for Dublin. Her connection to the constituency is fairly non-existent, but SF only have one councillor in the three LEAs (Daniel Ceitinn, a co-optee). Accordingly, they have gone to their strongest candidate who doesn’t hold a Dáil seat currently. Boylan is an impressive performer and parachuting her in indicates that SF are going all out to win this. Unsurprisingly, SF are focusing on housing (though their slogan needs to go back to the workshop) and are probably delighted that FG have agreed to meet them there.
- Fianna Fáil: Deirdre Conroy, Councillor for Kimmage-Rathmines LEA. Notable for taking Ireland to the ECHR in D v Ireland, a case over abortion rights, and for running in a completely different constituency in 2020. Conroy’s campaign ran into immediate trouble when it emerged she previously ran a blog called “Diary of a Dublin Landlady” which contained some spectacularly ill-advised comments about her tenants. She also had a launch video that simply cannot be described in words. FF briefly appeared to want to fight this on housing as well, but once the blog emerged they rapidly pivoted to transport.
- Green Party: Claire Byrne, Councillor for South-East Inner City LEA. No, not Claire Byrne from the telly. She’s a member of Eamon Ryan’s staff and, less notably, but in the interests of disclosure, the first politician I ever canvassed for. Byrne is more experienced than many of her rivals, having served on council since 2014. She was selected by the local GP branch ahead of the extremely popular Lord Mayor of Dublin, Hazel Chu, for reasons that appear to be more about the party’s determination to continue to self-destruct over internal politics than about winning an election. Her campaign seems centred around continuing to do local councillor things, but in the Dáil. Which doesn’t make sense, but hey, it works for Willie O’Dea.
- Labour Party: Ivana Bacik, Senator. Similar to SF, Labour have brought the biggest gun off their bench and are going all out to win this one. This is the third time Bacik will have run for the Dáil, and in the third different constituency – albeit this is the one she currently lives in, which is more than FG, FF or SF can say abut their candidates. Geoghegan’s blundering on repeal has certainly given Bacik, who was a trailblazer in that regard, an opening to centre her work there, although that narrative has fallen into the background as the FG candidate has managed to step on rake after rake. She’s been generating a lot of buzz among liberal circles, but I’m not convinced. Her campaign so far doesn’t seem to have a particular focus, and is trying to broadly occupy the entire centre-left lane.
- Social Democrats: Sarah Durcan, former candidate and activist. Durcan ran in DBS in 2020 and didn’t do particularly well, scoring 2.2% less FPV than the party got there in 2016 as the party was squeezed from the left by the Greens and Sinn Féin. In fairness, though she has absolutely nailed the traditional Soc Dems “reservoir dogs” photo. There’s been scuttlebutt that some in the local group were unhappy with the selection process, but nothing I can substantiate so it may just be a reaction to the FG and GP processes being a mess. Unsurprisingly, she has positioned herself as the housing candidate, an approach that makes sense given the SDs’ priorities, but is going to be difficult to beat Boylan with.
- People Before Profit: Brigid Purcell, first time candidate and activist. Purcell has made herself very visible lately, leading demonstrations about housing, water quality and the closure of public space in Portobello, as well as appearing on the Debenhams picket lines. Purcell has a slick election video and is providing some iconic election literature, although she’s not being helped much when her party comes out with material like this. Her campaign is the usual set of PBP priorities (though with added sea-swimming!) with emphasis, naturally, on housing.
- Aontú: Mairéad Tóibín, former candidate and one of Aontú’s many Tóibíns. She ran in Dún Laoghaire last time and did pretty poorly – 1.9% FPV – so she’s another of the several candidates who are trying their their luck in DBS after losing elsewhere. Her campaign is an absolute hodge-podge of issues but they are primarily positioned as an anti-lockdown party, a position that is about as popular as it is timely. It’s also interesting because they are trying to simultaneously disagree with every other party on every single thing, and it all comes off looking a bit disjointed, especially on housing.
- Other: Former PBP local candidate and housing activist Peter Dooley is running as another housing candidate, and Mannix Flynn is running because he’s Mannix Flynn and that’s just what he does. There’s also what as far as I can tell is a child dressed up in his da’s suit running, but he’ll probably end up with more milkshakes thrown at him than votes, so, nobody cares what he thinks. There may be other candidates who emerge, but they are also likely to be of little significance.
But who will win?
I’ll be frank: it will take something remarkable for Fine Gael to lose this election. But my God, they are trying.
Why the confidence in Fine Gael?
In short, there are two main factors behind this – the polling environment, and the constituency itself. The polling environment remains quite favourable to FG in Dublin. While SF have opened up a small but consistent lead nationally, FG continue to outpace them in the nation’s capital. With the B&A poll (and there’s a whole other story there that we’ll look at in the monthly update) from June 13th, the RPA for Dublin looks like this:
Fine Gael’s advantage is slowly dropping (they were in the mid-30s late last year) but their closest rival, Sinn Féin, have barely budged in the same timeframe. Bearing in mind that in the 2020 GE, despite FG’s relatively weak performance overall, and SF’s advantage nationally, they beat SF in DBS by a comfortable margin – 27.7% FPV to 16.1%. DBS is a very, very friendly constituency for FG. If we apply the above swing figures to the 2020 results, this is what we get:
Based on the generic factors alone, it looks basically impossible for anyone other than Fine Gael to win. However, it’s not going to be so simple – particularly in a by-election. It is however worth noting that these figures are contingent on how the 2020 candidate did. So is Clare Byrne going to be equal to Eamon Ryan, or James Geoghegan equal to Eoghan Murphy and Kate O’Connell? I doubt it. Conversely, might Lynn Boylan and Ivana Bacik’s national profiles mean they do better than Chris Andrews or Kevin Humphreys? I’d suspect so. But there’s no way to to quantify this. I do suspect things will be closer in reality (and that Bacik may well beat Byrne and Conroy, and that PBP and Aontú will do a little better than projected), but not enough to make a difference.
The reason I’m illustrating this is not to say that FG have got this in the bag and everyone else should go home (though it seemed that way before their candidate opened his mouth) but to show just how much slack FG have. They can afford to run a bad campaign and make mistakes because the basic factors are so far in their favour. And so far, they are running a bad campaign, and making mistakes. The question is, is it enough to move this by election into competitive territory?
So this could be competitive after all?
Maybe, if certain things happen. And it’s a big if still. One thing to be clear about: Sinn Féin are the only party that can come close to FG. There was a tiny, outside potential for the Greens if Hazel Chu had got the nod, but that’s out the window now. Byrne, Bacik and Durcan are competing in the same area both geographically and ideologically. Fianna Fáil are tanking in Dublin and their candidate has already blown up on the biggest issue. This is an impossible constituency for PBP made even more impossible with Dooley running. Aontú have zero presence in the constituency. Mannix will get his usual vote and do little else. It’s SF or FG.
While we don’t know exactly how the vote broke down in GE 2020, we can reverse engineer a pretty good picture from Ian Richardson’s tallies and the polling scheme from the returning officer. While not entirely accurate, it’s extremely close – we’re talking variations of at most a few tenths of a percent, and it gives us a breakdown by area. Because we have turnout, we can play around with the variables and work out what level of changes are needed for this to be competitive. Below are an approximation of tallies from 2020, by electoral division, within each LEA, as best I can reverse engineer them:
Firstly, let’s baseline this out. How close to FG do SF need to be in order to beat them on transfers? Bear in mind that this will be speculative, but it will give us an idea of what kind of ballpark SF would need to be in. Here’s the transfer rates from 2020. Note that SDs and PBP are identical because they were eliminated simultaneously, and non-transferable votes aren’t considered here.
That looks pretty rough for SF, and it is. We have to make some serious assumptions about values such as Fianna Fáil’s transfers; these would need to be derived from Dublin-wide figures, which is problematic. We can make an approximation here based on that. Assuming everyone else’s votes are static, to beat FG, SF would need to get roughly 10-15% more FPV than them. That’s a huge ask.
How can that happen?
There’s a number of factors at play, but SF will need lightning to strike. Firstly, they will need turnout to be relatively low overall. This is fairly simple, by-elections tend to have crappy turnout, though given the high profile nature of this race it may not be as low as they might like. Secondly, they will need turnout rates in SEIC to be relatively much higher than in the two LEAs south of the canal. SF are much stronger here. Look at the below heatmap of SF FPV in GE 2020 from Ian Richardson and you can see why this is essential:
Similarly, they also need Fine Gael’s voters to not turn out – with such an uninspiring candidate, its very possible – across the entire constituency. They also need those FG voters to not switch to FF/LAB/GP and continue their preference, but stay home entirely. It’s unlikely, but to put some numbers on that: Turnout in the southern two LEAs will need to drop at roughly twice the rate it does in SEIC, Boylan will need to overperform 2020 by the equivalent of a 25% swing, and Geoghegan will need to underperform by about 25% as well. This would put Boylan in a position where she can win. The first is tough, the second very plausible, the third would be absolutely remarkable.
This, until someone polls the constituency directly and demonstrates a huge shift, remains FG’s to lose. Their generic “cushion” of nearly 30 points will likely not manifest at anywhere near that level on polling day, but overturning that is a huge task. With transfers looking as they are (and projecting transfers is wild business, so don’t read too much into this) even if they are somehow slightly behind on FPV, there’s every chance they could overtake. SF need to run up the score on FPV and run it up well. I’ve outlined how they can do that within existing parameters, but maybe there are other paths – activating non-voters and so on, things that a projection model can’t really factor in.
But for now, absent further information, Fine Gael still have a substantial advantage, and the question really is how much of that can they piss away by the time polling day comes around.