As we noted last week on Gript, the result of the Dublin Bay South bye-election, where the media set the posh against the privileged, was never going to be much of a surprise. 

The constituency is one of the wealthiest areas in the country. As far as gated houses and disposable incomes are concerned, DBS is not so much how the other half live as where many of the top ten percent reside, all organic yoga, hand-pressed juices, and green credentials being worn as a status symbol in the same way as other luxury goods are.

The former Labour leader, Ruairi Quinn, became wryly known as Mr Angry from Sandymount, though this time the seat was taken by someone so long a part of the elite establishment that the only issues that might raise tensions are the narrowness or otherwise of cycle lanes. (The last radical stance taken by the Labour Party, incidentally, was to inflict savage cuts on payments to single parents during the austerity imposed because of the bank bailouts, a move which drove many into poverty).

Whether Bacik or Geoghegan took the seat made no difference really, in particular because the constituency is generally held not to be representative of Ireland, or to share the concerns which are motivating voters across the country.

In fact, what was possibly most noticeable about the election was the utterly dismal turnout. Despite the huge media attention, and the saturation of the constituency by the political parties, only 35% of those registered to vote actually bothered to do so.

So almost two thirds of the electorate voted for absolutely nobody in Dublin Bay South because they weren’t interested enough to even show up to show their preferences. That should be the real story of the election, and it begs a bigger question: if 65% of the electorate don’t vote, should the result be valid?

The Examiner laughably opined that the result showed the electorate’s “appetite for change”. Would that be the one in three that bothered to vote? Not much of an appetite evidenced there.

Turnout matters, even in a bye-election, because otherwise the result is not representative. When the turnout is abysmal, and 35% is abysmal, then we are left with the reality that only the politicos – those involved with, or strongly supportive of, political parties – are deciding policy and the direction of the country for everyone else.

In this case, then, expect lots of Dáil action on housing for refugees and rainbow crossings, while the average Irish citizen faces a lifetime renting, austerity, zero contract hours and growing inequality. But we’ll have cycle lanes, and wind farms that don’t really work, so quit complaining.

In fairness, it could be said that bye-elections have notoriously low turnouts, but voter engagement has been falling in Ireland for a long time now, and the giddy turnout heights of 70% or more are a thing of the past. Some eligible voters, especially those living in less advantaged areas, clearly feel their vote, and their voice, doesn’t matter. That’s a very serious impediment to achieving a fully-functioning democracy.

In 2020, under 63% of people voted in the general election, the fourth lowest turnout in the history of the state. Previously, only 43% bothered to show up to pick the last President.  Just 33% cast their votes in a referendum to change the Constitution on parental and children’s rights, while a shocking 29% decided for the whole country on restricting bail rights.

This level of voter abstention is also evidenced when voters feel that the outcome seems to have little impact on their lives, though they are often mistaken in that surmise. The last election to the European Parliament saw a turnout of just under 50% in Ireland where participation has been steadily decreasing.

In contrast, Belgium’s turnout for the same election reached 88%, but Belgium enforces mandatory voting, a solution which raises issues around personal freedoms and civil rights. Should a citizen be forced to vote if they feel no-one represents them?  But equally should a government be allowed to rule and make radical decisions impacting on the economy and on the lives of every citizen when they are representing fewer and fewer people?

Fine Gael’s frantic tweet on the day of the bye-election about Sinn Féin voters turning out was a disgrace and was rightly condemned as implying that working class people were the ‘wrong kind of voter’. But the problem is bigger than the stupidity of the Fine Gael social media team.

Increasing numbers of voters, especially those weary or disillusioned by the process, are not even bothering to vote. Truth be told, the political parties, with coffers swollen by millions in taxpayer funds, might quietly be happy enough to motivate the voters who are supportive of their own particular brand.

The only solution to that vista is to build alternatives and to vote. Politics is a long game. Everyone should feel there’s someone they can vote for.