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Stephen Collins: Dublin Bay South count will tell us a lot

Voters cannot transfer to another candidate of the same party, so where will they go?

The progress of the count in the Dublin Bay South byelection today should provide a fascinating insight into where Irish politics may go in the years ahead.

It will not be simply a story of who wins the contest to be the next TD for the constituency, but of what the transfer pattern reveals about the deeper mood of the electorate.

The general election in February of last year showed a massive shift in the political tectonic plates. Sinn Féin emerged as the biggest party in terms of votes and for a few days after the election there was dizzy talk of the party taking over the reins of power with the aid of left-wing parties and Independents.

The speculation was based on a fundamental misconception about the way parliamentary democracy works. A government has to be approved by a majority of TDs in the Dáil and the biggest party has no automatic right to assume that it will get the support required to lead it.


There was deep disappointment among Sinn Féin supporters at the course of events in the spring of 2020 and idle talk of rallies and street demonstrations to force its way into government. That soon died as the reality of the Dáil arithmetic began to sink it.

Can the centre hold?

It is possible that Sinn Féin supporters were confused by the fact that in Northern Ireland the biggest party in the Assembly automatically gets to choose the First Minister. Electing the taoiseach is a different matter as the party found out during the long tedious months of negotiation that led to the current Coalition taking office.

The big political choice facing the country in the years ahead is whether the centre, as represented by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, will be strong enough to form governments, with or without smaller parties, and hold off Sinn Féin and the radical left. Last year after a lot of heart searching, and some flirting with Sinn Féin, the Greens threw in their lot with the two long-established parties. Today’s count should give some pointers as to what supporters of the three Government parties think of the arrangement.

The views of the voters in Dublin Bay South about the political options facing them will emerge in the course of the counts as the field of 15 is whittled down with candidates being eliminated and their votes transferred on to their next available preference. That process will tell a tale.

Byelection counts tend to give a clearer picture than general elections of how voters feel about parties other than their own as they do not have the option of transferring to another candidate of the same party. Apart from the two leading candidates the preferences of everybody else will become evident as the count progresses.

Of course the personalities of the candidates often trump political allegiances, not only when it comes to transfers but also in terms of first preference votes. The showing of Labour candidate Ivana Bacik in the Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI constituency poll in Dublin Bay South illustrated this.

With 22 per cent support in the poll Bacik was far ahead of the level of support in the constituency for the Labour Party which was on just 10 per cent. As well as doing very well on first preferences she also polled well on second preferences from most of the other candidates.

That poll provided some intriguing clues about how the transfer pattern will go during the count. While Fine Gael’s James Geoghegan was in the lead with 27 per cent the fact that he was only five points ahead of Bacik gave her every chance of catching up with him.

Is FG’s Geoghegan transfer friendly?

One thing that Geoghegan had going for him in the poll was that he was attracting second preferences from 45 per cent of people who said they would give their number one to Fianna Fáil candidate Deirdre Conroy. The transfer of Conroy’s votes will be one of the crucial factors in the outcome.

Transfers from Green Party candidate Claire Byrne were not as favourable for the Fine Gael candidate, with Bacik getting marginally more of them than Geoghegan, and they too will be vital in deciding the outcome. Whether or not he is elected, the ability of Geoghegan to attract transfers from his Coalition parties will be significant in itself.

One intriguing feature of the poll was that it showed Sinn Féin candidate Lynn Boylan winning far few transfers than the other leading candidates. She was getting just 3 per cent of second preferences from Bacik and the same proportion from the Green candidate. By contrast almost 70 per cent of the Labour number twos were going to the three Government candidates while Byrne was transferring the same proportion to the Government parties and Labour.

Bacik’s number twos are unlikely to be counted today, given that she is likely to be in the race until the final count, but the overwhelming preference for the Government candidates rather than Sinn Féin revealed in the poll might prompt the Labour leadership to rethink its current blustering tactics. It suggests that in the longer run entering government rather than staying indefinitely in Opposition is what its supporters want.