On Thursday, the good people of one of Ireland’s wealthiest constituencies, and one of its most liberal, will go to the polls to select a replacement TD, after Fine Gael’s Eoghan Murphy decided – quite rationally – that he had just about had enough of the carry on in Leinster House. In a constituency that has historically liked electing Ministers, not simply TDs, the voters have been given – at least on paper – a panopoly of choices. But that is on paper. When you look at the candidates, and the parties in contention for victory, they have been given hardly any choice at all.
The media, naturally, is very keen to see a victory for Ivana Bacik. Bacik, the Labour candidate, has all the attributes that Irish journalists adore: She is a woman. She is progressive. She is a feminist. She rides a bike. She cares very much about things like gender quotas, and transgender rights. She went to Trinity, and indeed has represented it as a Senator for decades, meaning that she must be intelligent. She’s the kind of candidate who would win elections in television programmes like “The West Wing”, though sadly, her own election record (outside of Trinity at least) has been very poor.
Nevertheless, the media have gone all in on Bacik. Where other candidates have faced criticism for their wealth and privilege, have been accused of being out of touch with the poor, and prosecuted for the location of houses they own, Bacik, a Waterford Crystal Heiress who owns a nice house in the constituency, has escaped any such criticism.
Bacik’s main opponent for the seat is James Geoghegan of Fine Gael. Geoghegan is the designated villain in this election.
He is a villain not for anything that he believes: he has, in fact, been at pains to conform to all the expectations of a modern main party candidate. On social issues and progressivism, there is not a hair between him and Bacik on any matter of policy. He’s been at pains to praise repeal of the 8th, eager to be photographed in rainbow garb, and so self-consciously liberal that one wonders whether he’s taken to muttering “black lives matter” in his sleep. He is not a villain, of course, because of anything he professes to believe.
He is a villain, simply, because he denied Kate O’Connell her chance to be the Fine Gael nominee, and worse that that, did so while being a man. This was, to many people in the media, an unforgivable crime, with echoes of this country’s long (and mostly imagined) history of middle class white men trampling over the ambitions of spunky, fierce, downtrodden women. Many journalists were really looking forward to Kate O’Connell’s return to Leinster House. That they have been denied such a joy requires vengeance, and James Geoghegan has had to pay the price.
The other main party candidates are barely worth a mention. Fianna Fáil is running a slightly odd lady by the name of Deirdre Conroy, who is doing a passable imitation of Ross O’Carroll-Kelly’s mother – outwardly progressive, but not beyond renting out her hot-press to adequately groomed male immigrants for a few bob on the side. Sinn Fein is running Lynn Boylan, because, well, Sinn Fein really likes running Lynn Boylan. The SF pitch is targeted at the working class parts of the constituency, and they will probably net 80% of the votes in poorer boxes, and next to nothing in Rathgar. The Social Democrats are running a lady called Sarah Durcan, whose pitch seems to be that she is the b-team version of Ivana Bacik. Since the Soc Dems are essentially a b-team version of Labour, this is at least an honest campaign.
The Greens, meanwhile, are running Claire Byrne, who looks and sounds like, but is not, her RTE namesake. Byrne got the nod because she is an Eamon Ryan loyalist, and her main internal competition, Hazel Chu, was not. She has already basically conceded that she will not win, and has advised her voters to transfer to Bacik, which has earned her, in turn, a fair hearing from the Bacik-adoring media. People before Profit, meanwhile, are running somebody with a nose ring who believes the time has come to overthrow capitalism – which is what they do at every election, to be fair.
Aontu’s Mairead Toibin is a fine candidate, and the only mainstream candidate in the election to oppose the continued lockdown. But this is a constituency that, even if it agreed with Aontu, would be embarrassed to admit it. Expectations should be low for them, despite Ms Toibin being a very fine person.
In the end, this will come down to Fine Gael versus Bacik. The problem for Fine Gael is that a Bacik victory suits every other party just fine: The main Government party will get a bloody nose, and it will be hard to argue that Bacik’s victory represents a triumph for Labour, when the media will represent it as a long-awaited personal victory for an “iconic campaigner”. Nobody else is harmed, politically, by a Bacik victory, which means that the other parties – even Fianna Fáil – will be quietly lobbying for transfers to her.
In the end, though, the result will be politically meaningless. Nothing is likely to change as a result of the election, because, if we are honest, all of the main candidates for victory believe the same things. Fine Gael, even if it loses, is likely to get a big enough share of the vote to be able to convincingly argue that it would win two seats at an election. Sinn Fein will say, truthfully, that the constituency does not suit them. The progressive left parties – the Greens and Soc Dems – will say their voters lent their votes to Bacik, the icon. Only Fianna Fáil risks real embarrassment, which is why they have smartly picked such a dud candidate that they’ll be able to blame her, and not the party brand, for the coming humiliation.