H+K Brussels’ George Candon and Jack Matthijnssens discuss the potential fallout of a probable by-election upset in Ireland.

TD[1] Eoghan Murphy’s announcement he would stand down for a job with the OCSE has led to one of the most interesting Irish by-elections in living memory. One of the members of Leo Varadkar’s centre-right Fine Gael (FG) party often seen to have a bright political future, his departure at just 39 is considered to weaken the party’s future leadership. But today’s by-election could upset the Fine Gael leadership in other ways.

Kate O’Connell, a former TD and local pharmacist looked the obvious choice for the Fine Gael nomination. She had a track record of being strong on public health (always good in a pandemic) and being a progressive in possibly the most socially liberal constituency in the country. But she was overlooked – she subsequently made no bones about the fact that the selection decision came from on high, and some think this was payback for her vocal support for Simon Coveney over Leo Varadkar in the party’s leadership contest.

Instead Fine Gael plumped for the relatively unknown James Geoghegan, a local councillor and barrister by profession. Geoghegan was a founding member of Renua, a right-wing socially-conservative political grouping that emerged in 2015, and while now back in the Fine Gael fold, he has found he has had to spend much of the campaign trying to brandish his liberal credentials – even including the rainbow flag in his Twitter profile. Geoghegan’s defence is that he fell into the right-wing conservative grouping by happenstance, being parliamentary assistant to its founder Lucinda Creighton at the time of the party’s creation. Competing candidates have been quick to label him a political mercenary and point to his past as a tobacco lobbyist to ram home the message.

It’s a packed field of 15 candidates, but really just a two-horse race. The standout challenger is Labour’s Senator Ivana Bacik, a law professor, barrister and the standard bearer of the progressive left. Inevitably, the contest has been dubbed the ‘battle of the barristers’. Bacik’s liberal credentials are by comparison unimpeachable. She has a strong track record of championing progressive causes, is a staunch supporter women’s right to choose, and has called  on the Irish state to sue the religious orders behind the mother-and-baby homes scandal.

Polls suggest Geoghegan will receive most first-preference votes, but nowhere near enough to be elected outright. He’s been polling at 27% with Bacik snapping at his heels on 22%.

Dublin Bay South is Fine Gael heartland. It’s the former constituency of party grandees and Taoisigh[2] John A Costello and Garret Fitzgerald. Fine Gael has almost always topped the poll there since 1948, and the party’s spectacular and shock failure to secure a single seat in the constituency[3] in 2002 forced then party leader Michael Noonan’s resignation, such is its importance to the Fine Gael psyche and identity.

It should normally be a relative walk in the park for FG. But the party has had to throw huge resources into the fight, co-opting TDs and government ministers to canvass. The count is likely to go down to the wire, but bookies were giving Bacik the edge on the eve of the election, predicting she’ll mop up enough second- and further-round preference votes.

If she does, many inside Fine Gael will question party leader Leo Varadkar’s choice of candidate. The by-election could deliver even more change than anticipated. After all, the party has form in defenestrating a leader for losing the very same constituency seat…

[1] Member of parliament

[2] Prime ministers

[3] Ireland has multi-seat constituencies under the country’s single-transferrable vote proportional representation (PR-STV) electoral system.