Alison O'Connor: The stakes are high in a by-election that could reshape national politics

'House!' A bank holiday bingo session attended by one of the candidates could hint at a key issue in Dublin Bay South
Alison O'Connor: The stakes are high in a by-election that could reshape national politics

Sinn Féin candidate in the Dublin Bay South by-election, Senator Lynn Boylan, on the campaign trail in Ringsend last Saturday. On bank holiday Monday, Alison O'Connor tagged along with Ms Boylan on the canvass — and a bingo session — at one of Ireland's oldest social housing complexes. Picture: Damien Storan

IT really is a rather delicious electoral prospect — a by-election that has the potential to change the national political narrative. But also the first where there are so many more female than male candidates.

Campaigners, apparently, will be able to knock on doors — probably just one person at a time, standing at a social distance. So some of it will look all too familiar.

The Fine Gael candidate in Dublin Bay South, James Geoghegan, has an exceptional political lineage, but also has his complications, including a reputation — which he disputes — for being socially conservative given that he abandoned Fine Gael at one point to join Lucinda Creighton’s anti-abortion Renua. Dublin Bay South showed overwhelming support for the 2018 abortion referendum, with over 78% voting in favour.

James Geoghegan, Fine Gael’s candidate in the  Dublin Bay South by-election which was triggered by Eoghan Murphy’s surprise resignation. Picture: Naoise Culhane
James Geoghegan, Fine Gael’s candidate in the  Dublin Bay South by-election which was triggered by Eoghan Murphy’s surprise resignation. Picture: Naoise Culhane

It is a cause greatly associated with former FG TD Kate O’Connell.

It’s felt by all you talk to that if Kate was running now her party would be far more likely to retain the seat. But Kate’s falling foul of Leo Varadkar during that party’s leadership contest has already been well rehearsed.

Labour candidate Ivana Bacik has been through many electoral rodeos. It’s difficult to see how such an accomplished and dedicated politician would not be an excellent addition to the ranks of the Dáil. It’s interesting how the people in other parties take time to praise her work over the years, and especially her dedication to repealing the Eighth Amendment. 

Labour candidate, Senator Ivana Bacik, photographed during the formal launch of her campaign on Wednesday. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Labour candidate, Senator Ivana Bacik, photographed during the formal launch of her campaign on Wednesday. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

However, they all say that it is her party, and its current popularity with voters, that will bring her down, with some even suggesting she would likely perform better as an independent candidate. But you couldn’t rule her out.

It’s been a nightmare so far for Fianna Fáil candidate Deirdre Conroy, with reports surfacing of an ill-advised blog she used to write, titled ‘Diary of a Dublin Landlady’.

Then there was a report about her taking legal action over a fall on a ski trip in 2015. To be fair, this was no fall from a swing in a nightclub and ultimately she had to have a full hip replacement.

Councillor Deirdre Conroy, the Fianna Fáil by-election candidate for Dublin Bay South, pictured with Taoiseach Micheál Martin. Picture: Conor McCabe
Councillor Deirdre Conroy, the Fianna Fáil by-election candidate for Dublin Bay South, pictured with Taoiseach Micheál Martin. Picture: Conor McCabe

For Leo Varadkar, the stakes are high here, most particularly if this seat is lost to Sinn Féin. Prior to the 2020 general election, it would have been impossible to even contemplate Sinn Féin winning a second seat in this constituency with so many affluent areas throughout its leafy suburbs. But candidate Lynn Boylan is definitely being seen as having a shot. Even if she runs James Geoghegan close, it will be a real indication of where things are at in political terms.

Lynn is viewed as having entered the race reluctantly, having expected to run in Dublin South-West in the next general election after losing her seat in the European Parliament. But it is a sign of how seriously the party is taking this contest that she has been put up.

On the campaign trail with Lynn Boylan

The contest has not even been called yet — it’s expected to take place on July 7 or 8. But I decided to try and head out with Lynn earlier this week. Experience has long taught me that, tagging along on a Sinn Féin canvass, there is no point in asking to go to a specific area — for instance, to witness how would Boylan be greeted in leafy Rathgar. They will bring you where they want you to go.

Instead, we ended up just off Pearse St, hardly a stone’s throw from Dublin City centre. It was a beautifully sunny bank holiday Monday afternoon.

We headed towards Pearse House, the ‘small flats’, where there are around 375 flats. Built in the 1930s, it is one of Dublin’s oldest social housing flat complexes.

They are in dire condition, including problems with dampness, electricity, pipes, and rat infestations. They have been earmarked for regeneration.

People were sitting outside enjoying the good weather, others on their ground-floor balconies under sun umbrellas, and some people standing looking over from the upper floor balconies. There was excitement in the air. A bingo session was about to begin.

“I asked Sonia to save us some books,” said sitting Sinn Féin TD Chris Andrews, referring to one of the bingo organisers. If it is the job of a politician to know the local scene, you could say this scion of one of Fianna Fáil’s more firmly-rooted family trees appeared right at home here. The former Fianna Fáil TD joined Sinn Féin in 2013.

Sinn Féin's candidate Lynn Boylan and Chris Andrews TD joined residents of the 'small flats' at Pearse House in Dublin for a game of bingo while on the campaign trail on bank holiday Monday. The party will be pushing housing as one of its key issue in the by-election.
Sinn Féin's candidate Lynn Boylan and Chris Andrews TD joined residents of the 'small flats' at Pearse House in Dublin for a game of bingo while on the campaign trail on bank holiday Monday. The party will be pushing housing as one of its key issue in the by-election.

He seemed to know just about everybody, and popped in and out of one or two flats, all the time having the craic. Almost everyone was greeted by name and, almost to a person, they knew him. A woman who looked to be in her 20s walked past. They exchanged greetings and the TD immediately asked her about “the test”. They chatted for a few seconds and it turns out it was her driver theory test.

He’d introduce Lynn, saying she is a senator, and the party candidate in the by-election. She’d tell people she was an MEP, that she spent her early years in the Iveagh Trust social housing where some of her cousins still live.

It was time for the bingo to start.

“I have me dabber,” said Chris, waving the pen.

'Working Class Girl'

Lynn, who has ‘Working Class Girl’ in her Twitter bio, recalled playing bingo in Mosney as a child when she “used to go down in the summer project”. At one point she mentions she may have a small fishbone stuck in her throat from eating red mullet the night before. There ensues a little gentle ribbing about the cooking skills of her TD partner Eoin Ó Broin.

Before the bingo kicked off there was an announcement thanking Sinn Féin for the donation towards the sound system. You could hear a pin drop as Bernie said “good luck” to the participants. She started calling out the numbers — “legs 11”, “four on a date, 48”, “two little ducks, 22”, “the cock and hen, number 10”, “top of the house, 90”. On it went.

It was great fun. As time went on, it was hard to know if Chris was genuinely finding it difficult to get the hang of the game or playing bingo-dumb to get the sympathy of the women beside him who kept assisting him to mark his card. 

Eye on the jackpot prize

“If it was votes you’d know how to count them,” a man said to him.

The prizes were given out. €50, €100 plus a box of sweets, with the tension building for the €600 jackpot. It was won by a woman on a deck chair.

“See you later, girls,” said Chris, waving as he and Lynn left after taking a quick photo.

This was only a snapshot, in a particular local area, and a very limited one at that. It’s a big ask to elect a second Sinn Féin TD here. But it will be intriguing to see how this candidate fares in the other areas of Dublin Bay South where she and her party will be pushing housing as an issue, including to those renting, of which there is a huge number.

Roll on the by-election.

 

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