Surprise By-Election for Dublin Bay South

Peter McNamara

Coming to a soap box near you: it’s the Dublin Bay South Showdown. Eoghan Murphy (see profile pg, 14), best known for his tenure as Fine Gael’s Minister for Housing (talk about a troublesome tenant), has resigned his seat in the leafy constituency. Although Murphy’s absence might not be much different from his actual presence as a minister and TD, with the wonder kid headed to another cushy job in the public sector, a by-election must be held in Dublin Bay to fill this vacancy. We the people must scrutinise another batch of hood-winkers and hopefuls. 
As insipid as politics can be at the best of times, this latest contest has the ingredients of a corker – fill your glass with effervescent internal party turmoil, overflowing egoic ambition, and the rare sparkle of a female-dominated ballot. To those who like to cross their t’s and dot their i’s, this contest will also be the first opportunity to see how to run a vote in the time of Covid, with the possibility of the poll taking place over two days. There might be many a train wreck to toast over in the weeks and months ahead. 
It’ll come as no surprise that DBS occupies an outsized space in the political news cycle. Could it have something to do with its position as “by far the most affluent” constituency in the country? Does the fact that the Bay is also home to RTÉ’s Donnybrook HQ?  
By the same token, the characters we usually find scrambling for power in the area tend to be national figures also – you might be forgiven for wondering whether the wealthy and well-connected have a grá for retaining a well-feathered perch. In 2007 we bore witness to the Rumble in Ranelagh. In this heavyweight clash, the irresistible force of trim-state evangelist Michael McDowell met the immovable object of Birkenstock-sandled John Gormley – the astro-physical ramifications of the encounter are still being felt in Dublin 6 to this day. In 2016 Fine Gael’s Kate O’Connell sprung a surprise to unseat former party colleague and architect of her own demise Lucinda Creighton, who supported Fine Gael’s increasingly conservative views on social supports, finance and housing, but opposed its liberalisation on gay marriage and reproductive rights. Four years later, this staunch ‘Repeal the 8th’ supporter couldn’t escape a similar fate – even with her high profile – as Murphy took the only seat Fine Gael managed to hold in the four-seater, a position he has now seen fit to flee.
The sitting TDs in the area (who can yet hide behind their leather-bound chairs) are Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, Sinn Féin’s Chris Andrews, and Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan. Ryan was elected on the first count ahead of Andrews last year, with O’Callaghan squeezing O’Connell out for the final seat.
Sinn Féin has already signalled it will seek to make this a referendum on the Government’s performance on housing, others see the vote as a test of the handling of the pandemic. It could be all of these things. Or none. All the lowly spectator can really hope for are Tweet-able gaffes and Prime Time revelations. God willing, the verdant streets of Dublin Bay will be thronged with dusty perambulating skeletons, dragged from the deepest of closets (or forests) into the searing light of day. 
Incidentally, that light is likely to shine from a summer sun. All parties must agree on when to call the vote, but Leo Varadkar has signalled his preference for a summer contest.
Wringing his hands at the possibility of vanquishing his political enemies in open combat, Leo told a huddled press conference, “I always prefer electioneering in the summer and campaigning in the summers, it’s a much more pleasant experience.” Suffice it to say, a grand stretch in the evenings means more time for our Tánaiste to go pressing the flesh – with or without whetted steel.

Fine Gael: Afraid to Fail 
Truth be told, Leo is under pressure to deliver a convincing win. Dublin Bay South has been party heartland for decades, and it would be unconscionable for Fine Gael to not have a TD in the old constituency of Garret FitzGerald. What’s more, Leo needs a big success to vanquish the disappointment of last year’s general election result, when the party expected to do much better. A smug retort of ‘keep the recovery going’ reproduced on hundreds of party posters did not shore up Fine Gael support – it seems some in this land are a little miffed at the high-handed handling of things under the new leadership – and this presents a test of Leo’s vote-getting ability, the number one criteria for any party leader.  If it comes to it, Blue Shirts may yet turn red.
It probably doesn’t help that his fellow zesty liberal-yet-conservative former chum Eoghan Murphy is vacating the contested seat in dismal fashion. Things can’t be going well when you’re unpopular in your own party, let alone amongst the rest. 
Murphy has denied that the housing crisis he presided over as minister ended his political career. He has also denied that the image of his election poster near where a homeless man had died in his tent had crystallised the issue of housing for the last election. But he did acknowledge that his comments on co-living had been “stupid” and the way he had presented the issue had been a mistake. While he has said he’s not yet applied for any jobs, he’s stated he’s keen to return to the area of nuclear disarmament. Considering the trouble he had with bricks and mortar, I’m not sure Eoghan’s quite the man to trust with enriched uranium. Bunkers might yet replace houses as the dwelling of choice.

James Geoghegan:
Judgment Day

James Geoghegan (FG) Fine Gael choice over Kate O’Connell

Fine Gael councillor James Geoghegan has stepped up bravely to fight this contest for his party. It’s a classic underdog story: with two parents and two grandparents as Supreme Court judges, and himself a practicing barrister, Geoghegan is ready to bring “new energy and new ideas” to the political scene – and we all know there’s nothing more dangerous than a man with nothing to lose. 
The 35-year-old wants to be the “voice for the generation” of people who are “locked out of the housing market”. It might be worth mentioning at this point that Geoghegan has already safely installed himself on the property ladder with a home and mortgage of his own. Also, at the launch of his campaign, the plucky barrister also described the dismal Irish housing situation, which has been deepening for the last 10 years, as the “crisis of the next decade”. 
Given that the latest government anti-cuckoo fund legislation has been roundly criticised in political and academic circles as being unfit for purpose, it remains to be seen what great changes can come from this party, with or without the addition of this par-for-the-course young dynamo. 
This contest has also seen some backroom brawling within Fine Gael spill into public view.  Controversy surrounds Geoghegan’s very selection, after former Dublin Bay South TD Kate O’Connell had claimed that her path to the nomination was effectively blocked.

Kate O’Connell:
Not Your Turf
O’Connell said she made clear her intentions to put forward her name for selection as the party candidate in the by-election. On the other hand, Geoghegan claims that “Kate decided not to run” and it was “her decision”. Nonetheless, when chatting with RTÉ radio’s Today With Claire Byrne, O’Connell stated that “preparations had been made for a long time, and it would be impossible for me to win a convention.”
According to O’Connell, there seems to be many reasons why she was not the “desired” candidate in this by-election. 
There are currently no female TDs in Dublin Bay South. Fine Gael has been criticised for choosing to run a male candidate, when a prominent female choice is readily available. Party sources denied that it was a gender issue. Or that O’Connell’s backing of Coveney during the last Fine Gael leadership contest had absolutely anything at all to do with her not being a candidate in the by-election. It might be worth noting at this point that O’Connell was not supported by the Fine Gael national executive for a Seanad seat after losing her seat as a TD. 
The erstwhile electee has benefitted from her profession as a pharmacist providing a reason for her to be a continued presence on the airwaves during Covid-19. Last year she gave RTÉ’s Claire Byrne a flu jab on live TV and has been on the station’s flagship weekend Brendan O’Connor programme on several occasions. On one such appearance O’Connell pledged that she wasn’t finished in politics, while another appearance saw her question Leo Varadkar’s leadership in the wake of the leaking investigation, suggesting that he hasn’t “delivered” for the party. 
Echoing the sentiments of Meaghan Markle in her tell-all interview with Oprah, O’Connell said she would stay in Fine Gael, adding that it “wouldn’t be in my nature to stand aside and be silenced in any way.” Perhaps we need to see her on Winfrey’s plush veranda. Speaking about her time as a TD, she said that she’d faced a “sort of particularly personalised commentary and attacks in terms of attending Fine Gael meetings.”
Apparently, one hilarious hack had actually gone to the effort of placing a sod of turf in her team member’s bag and said, “she was going to present it to me in front of people” at a party meeting. O’Connell said that although things like this might not seem serious, “they’re designed to diminish.” She believes she was targeted because she’s “from the country” and not a native of the all-powerful Dublin Bay South.

Hazel Chu: Too Popular
to Party?  

Will Hazel Chu (GP) add yet another prize to her illustrious mantle?

If we’re really being honest with ourselves, amidst all this Fine Gael chicanery, the candidate to beat is probably Hazel Chu of the Green Party. Bookies place her among the favourites for the seat.
Although still only a councillor, Chu might be the most popular politician in the country. In the 2019 local elections she could have topped the poll twice, securing a whopping 33% of first preference votes, more than double the second placed candidate.
Chu was elected Lord Mayor of Dublin in 2020. TD-dom seems the natural next step for the able operator, who would be a welcome addition to the largely white male (and frequently mediocre) scene. Hazel Chu has confirmed she is seeking the Green Party nomination for the Dublin Bay South by-election, and that she’s running to ensure diversity on the ballot.
Living as we are in the wake of #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, fielding an extremely popular female person-of-colour seems like a no-brainer for the Greens. Unfortunately, that party has been known to operate without the use of a cognitive organ.
The Greens have three councillors in the DBS area: Claire Byrne in the South East Inner City, Carolyn Moore in Kimmage-Rathmines and Hazel Chu in Pembroke. Chu will be competing with councillor Claire Byrne to be on the ticket for the Greens – a known ally of Ryan.
Lord Mayor Chu has a fraught relationship with party leader and local TD Eamon Ryan. It’s hard to pin what exactly the issues of contention are, but it’s hard to overlook the fact that the Green Party has been coming under severe scrutiny for workplace and internal party bullying – particularly of its female staff. With many popular and high-profile politicians and staffers leaving the party in the run up to, and the aftermath of, the general election, and given that Ryan faced a strong leadership challenge from Catherine Martin, his leadership and management of the party seems to be leaving a lot to be desired. It’s possible that Hazel Chu could be too popular for the party leader’s liking. 
Chu is of course fresh off a disappointing failed run for the Seanad when she defied her party leadership to seek election to the upper house, causing all manner of internal strife in the process. A run for the Dáil in her party leader’s own constituency would not quell any such divisions.
Over the last year, the councillor and Lord Mayor has received much racist abuse and even death threats. Given Ryan’s careless use of racist language in the Dáil – albeit by way of quotation, to illustrate the problems of racism – one might expect him to jump at the chance to reaffirm his and his party’s stance against such hate. 
Ms Chu said she spoke to Green Party leader Eamon Ryan before throwing her hat in the ring to contest the by-election. The final party selection has yet to be made. 

Fianna Fail: A Woman in
No Man’s Land

Jim O’Callaghan (FF) Fianna Fáil director of elections.

Fianna Fáil doesn’t realistically expect to win but it’s important for future leadership hopeful and local TD Jim O’Callaghan that the party has a decent showing on the day. The TD, considered one of the leading contenders to succeed Taoiseach Micheál Martin as Fianna Fáil leader in the years to come, is the director of elections for the by-election. 
Taoiseach Micheál Martin summed up the view this week: “Even if you’re not successful in a by-election, the candidate can be successful in a subsequent general election.” He quickly added a caveat to what he’d said – no one wants to be seen admitting they’ve no actual hope of winning – but the constituent cat was long out of the election-bluster bag. 
Jim O’Callaghan might have been even happier than James Geoghegan to learn that Fine Gael was turning its back on O’Connell. He could hardly contain his delight on the airwaves when speaking to Claire Byrne on her radio programme. While complementing O’Connell, and stating that on a personal level he was disappointed that she would not be running, Big Jim said Fine Gael had done his party candidates a great favour by not putting the former TD forward for election.
“I’m very pleased we won’t be facing such a popular and competitive candidate in the by-election,” adding that Fianna Fáil will put in a very “vigorous and strong” campaign – not unlike the leap a certain proverbial feline made out of a certain proverbial bag. 
The party is looking to choose from its two local councillors and barristers Claire O’Connor and Deirdre Conroy, with Ms O’Connor seen as the favourite.
But the bigger issue is carving out relevance in the contest. With Sinn Féin being increasingly seen as the main voice of opposition to Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil will get stranded in no-man’s land. Claire O’Connor is the likely candidate to go over the top, and she will struggle to prevail in the scorched-earth craters left by her party. 

Sinn Féin: Watch
Your House

Chris Andrews (SF) sitting TD for the area.

Dublin Bay South is not natural territory for Sinn Féin but it got a foothold in 2020 when local councillor Chris Andrews regained a seat he previously held for Fianna Fáil.
Andrews was formerly a Fianna Fáil TD before making the switch to Sinn Féin, for whom he was first elected as a councillor before being elected to the Dáil again last year. Andrews’ main power base is in the eastern part of the constituency around Ringsend where he has been vocal on planning issues. Sinn Féin is likely to use the by-election to try to broaden its support base whilst seeking to make the by-election an acid test of people’s feelings on the government.
What’s clear is that the party intends to frame this as a contest about housing, highlighting its view that former Fine Gael Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy failed to fix the problem.
Less clear is the selection of a candidate. Senator Lynn Boylan has been mentioned but she has also been building locally in Tallaght with a view to running alongside Seán Crowe in Dublin South West in the next general election. The former MEP would have name recognition though. Another name in the mix is Councillor Daniel Céitinn and Senator Fintan Warfield, who is originally from Harold’s Cross.

Three strong female
Senator Ivana Bacik has already declared her intention to run but she faces a tough contest at a time when Labour is languishing in the national polls. The seasoned campaigner has contested several general elections and came closest to success when she was Eamon Gilmore’s running mate in Dún Laoghaire in 2011. Bacik may get a clear run at being Labour’s candidate but, if not, her likely competition could be councillors Kevin Donoghue or Dermot Lacey. 
Social Democrats co-leader Róisín Shortall said today the party will contest the by-election but didn’t suggest a name, with Sarah Durcan being the Soc Dem’s most recent candidate in the area.

Brigid Purcell (PBP) getting her hands dirty cleaning things up.

People Before Profit also confirmed today that it would be running a candidate: Brigid Purcell. Purcell has written a frank (and frankly refreshing) manifesto that takes aim at new co-living projects in the area and at the continuation of the Bus Connects plan. Talking about her experience as a precarious worker and renter in Dublin, she also cited stripes-earned on campaigns to stop the Ringsend Graving Docks being sold to a private developer, and to stop sewage being dumped into the Bay. 
Whatever happens in the contest this summer, I think we can all agree the more pressing matter might be the shifting of sewage from Kildare Street. Here’s hoping for an entertaining exercise in democracy!

Sarah Durcan (SD) a possible selection for the Social Dems.