The result of the Dublin Bay South by-election has raised serious issues for the three governing parties, which collectively saw their share of the vote fall below 40pc and places urgent question marks over the leadership of all three Coalition party leaders, particularly the Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin. Mr Martin has pointed out that governing parties seldom fare well in by-elections, and this is largely true.
t is, perhaps, even more so the case at a time when there is deep frustration among the public a year-and-a-half into the Covid-19 pandemic, which has once again flared. The Coalition’s management of the country’s emergence from the pandemic, in the face of the new Delta variant of the virus, now takes on added significance. The stability of the Government will rely even more on this issue in the aftermath of the by-election.
However, there are deeper issues for the Government to also consider, not least in relation to housing and the general sense of anger and disillusionment experienced by many younger people.
The by-election winner, Ivana Bacik, is to be congratulated on her notable success. She was by far the most impressive candidate in the contest. After a long career in national politics as a senator, and considerable achievement as a liberal campaigner for social rights and equality, Ms Bacik’s time has clearly come. She will be a genuine addition to Dáil Éireann. Her victory is shared by the Labour Party, the oldest political party in the State, which has experienced significant setbacks in recent elections. Labour’s contribution to the State has also been considerable, and this success is well deserved. Ms Bacik’s success is also a victory for constructive centrist politics and there may well be a lesson in that for all the parties in Leinster House. Pragmatic centrist parties will be required to work together to form future stable governments.
The by-election outcome may now lead to an outbreak of internal party political in-fighting in the three Coalition parties, particularly Fianna Fáil. Fine Gael and the Greens will also undergo much soul-searching. It is doubtful the leadership of Leo Varadkar and Eamon Ryan will be threatened at this stage. Both are likely to lead Fine Gael and the Greens into the next general election, whenever that may be.
The same cannot be said for Fianna Fáil. Once an arch-party of the centre of the political landscape in Ireland, Fianna Fáil has fallen mightily from that lofty position. The blame for this cannot be entirely laid at the feet on Micheál Martin, no more than fault for the party’s by-election drubbing can be entirely apportioned to leader aspirant Jim O’Callaghan. However, the country can ill afford a bout of Fianna Fáil infighting.
Mr Martin is scheduled to lead the country for the next 18 months. There is much to contend with, not least the management of the pandemic. There will be ample opportunity for Fianna Fáil to consider its future when Mr Martin transitions with the Fine Gael leader and Mr Varadkar is appointed Taoiseach.
In the meantime, and after that transition too, there is no shortage of work for the Government to get on with. The management of the economy and the task of rebuilding the country lie ahead. These challenges are great. The Government, the three parties to the Coalition — and their leaders — will be judged on how they rise to these challenges in the months and years ahead.