Despite the election of Fine Gael’s blow-in candidate George ‘TV’ Lee in Dublin South, in a by-election Labour thought they had sewn up only weeks beforehand, the recent bout of elections have given the left much to cheer in the capital.
In Dublin Central, independent Maureen O’Sullivan retained the seat of her mentor, the late Tony Gregory, on a similar platform of left-informed community activism.
And in the European elections, despite the constituency reducing from four seats to three, two of those were retained by left-leaning candidates.
Sitting Labour MEP Pronsias de Rossa was, as expected, comfortably re-elected. And he will be joined by Socialist Party leader Joe Higgins, who squeezed out sitting MEPs Fianna Fail’s Eoin Ryan and Sinn Fein’s Mary Lou McDonald for the final seat.
Left candidates also did exceptionally well at local level, with Dublin City Council now boasting 19 Labour members, 7 Sinn Fein, 2 People Before Profit, and two independents from the left – Mannix Flynn and Damien O’Farrell, one of independent TD Finian McGrath’s backroom team.
This is replicated across the metropolitan area. Labour are the biggest single party on both Fingal and South Dublin county councils, and are joined on both by left-leaning others – three Socialists in Fingal and 3 Sinn Fein and one People Before Profit councillor in South Dublin.
Even in Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown, probably the most affluent region of the country, 8 Labour councillors will be joined by 2 from People Before Profit.
Already, Labour’s eyes are turning outwards, towards building a base in rural constituencies before an imminent general election.
But perhaps this ongoing policy has cost them in the capital, where, as one right-wing media commentator puts it, ‘the left has more heads than a hydra.’
Maureen O’Sullivan’s election in Dublin Central indicates that not only is that still the most left-wing Dail constituency in the country, but that Labour appear incapable of making inroads beyond their sitting TD Joe Costello.
This is despite the fact that the party claimed a number of council seats in that same constituency. Yet close analysis of the transfers in Dublin Central indicate that Maureen O’Sullivan’s election was never in any doubt.
She took the biggest share of transfers off every single eliminated candidate in every round, apart from one. When the Green Party’s David Geary was eliminated on the fifth count, marginally more of those Green votes transferred to Ivana Bacik than O’Sullivan.
But what does it tell us that right-wing candidates like Christian Solidarity’s Paul O’Loughlin and Immigration Control Platform’s Pat Talbot transferred to O’Sullivan rather than, for example, to Fine Gael’s Paschal Donohue?
Perhaps it indicates that these are protest votes in search of an independent home?
Certainly, when Fianna Fail’s Maurice Ahern was eliminated, those in the know in the RDS were unsurprised to see the bulk of his votes head Maureen’s way. What was eye-opening was that more of his votes went to Fine Gael than to Labour or Sinn Fein.
It seems that word went out from Fianna Fail to vote O’Sullivan as a least damaging alternative. But obviously the more conservative Fianna Fail support preferred another right-wing candidate when it came to transfers.
Again, in relation to Christy Burke’s elimination, the surprise is not that the bulk of his transfers went to Maureen O’Sullivan, but that so many went to Paschal Donohue. A quarter of Sinn Fein transfers went to Fine Gael in total. One could read this as an anti-government vote, but it remains surprising, and perhaps a testimony to Burke’s appeal beyond the Sinn Fein core vote.
Burke’s first preferences were 600 up (or 20% if you prefer) on Mary Lou McDonald’s terrible performance for Sinn Fein in the same constituency only two years ago during the general election, which itself was a huge slump from the high mark of Nicky Kehoe in 2002, when Sinn Fein outpolled Labour and the second Fianna Fail candidate , and were unlucky not to claim the seat.
Where Sinn Fein go next in Dublin Central is difficult. Christy Burke has quit the party in order to run again as an independent, and will likely destroy whatever slender chance Mary Lou has of obtaining a seat in this constituency.
And with Donohue closing on a seat himself, it seems probable that the most left-wing constituency in the country will have one FG (Donohue), one FF (likely Mary Fitzpatrick), one Labour (Joe Costello) and one independent (Maureen O’Sullivan) next time out.
This Dublin Central result is one of many examples of why this set of elections was a dreadful setback for Sinn Fein. Their vote may have slid only 0.8% from the last local elections nationally, but that discounts the fact that they ran more candidates in more locations.
The reality is that the tide is going out for Sinn Fein in the capital, and their younger candidates, like Shaun Treacy, have yet to obtain sufficient experience even as older ones like Burke are leaving.
The beneficiaries of this trend are clearly the fringe Left – Joe Higgins’ Socialists in Fingal and Boyd Barrett’s People Before Profit Alliance in Dublin, South Dublin and Dun Laoghaire.
This trend also decided the destination of the third European seat in the capital. Mary Lou McDonald polled around 13,000 votes lower than in her previous successful outing in 2004. And she showed little likelihood of catching up the shortfall on her rivals for the seat as transfers eluded her in sufficient numbers.
Joe Higgins began 5,000 votes back from Eoin Ryan, who also had running mate Eibhlin Byrne’s 19,000 or so to rely on. Or so he thought. Not for the first time, FF transfers were erratic. Only half of Byrne’s votes went to Ryan, but that still left the veteran FF man over 13,000 clear of Higgins on the third count.
In fact, all the way to the end, Ryan remained a healthy distance clear of Higgins. After the elimination of independent Green Patricia McKenna, Ryan remained 11,500 clear of his Socialist rival on the 6th count.
It was only the spectacular rate of transfers from Mary Lou McDonald to Higgins (22,000 out of an available 27,000) that put Higgins in front at the last.
McDonald’s failure was to either outpoll or pull in front of Higgins at some point, and that in itself indicates her toxicity to Dublin voters not just in terms of first preferences but also in terms of transfers too.
Mary Lou received more transfers than Higgins from right-wing candidates like Simons and Sweeney, but much fewer when it was the more substantial left-wing votes being transferred.
If there are conclusions to be drawn from this vote, it is that transfers in Dublin are extremely erratic and not to be relied on. If Ryan had received all of Byrne’s transfers, he would now still be an MEP.
It also suggests that two left-wing seats could be difficult to defend in the next European elections, especially if Fianna Fail resurge in the capital, and if de Rossa, as expected, stands down.
While Labour continue to look to the provinces in the hope of creating a three party choice for power in the Dail, they run the risk of being outflanked in their capital power base.
The best analogy here is that of the DUP in the North, who went from 1st to 3rd in the European elections due to the splits within Unionism and particularly the emergence of a more extremist form of the DUP, the TUV.
The power base of Boyd Barrett’s People Before Profit Alliance is likely to result in at least one Dail seat at the next general election, and Higgins’ Socialists can also expect at least one seat in their base in the North of the capital.
And while progression in middle class Southside constituencies like Pembroke-Rathmines will cheer Labour, they are now at risk of failing to consolidate Dublin as their territory due to splits in the left vote, despite the slide in support for Sinn Fein.
The question is now whether it is time for Labour to find ways to woo their leftist cousins, as they once did with Democratic Left. If not, to what extent can people like Finian McGrath or Maureen O’Sullivan be relied on to support Labour in power, especially if they form a coalition with Fine Gael, as expected?
And there remains the ongoing question about the microleft in Dublin as to whether it is possible for them to coalesce into a harder left force with genuine influence.
Would Higgins, McGrath, Boyd Barrett and O’Sullivan consider some form of alliance, possibly in conjunction with Sinn Fein? Is there an umbrella they could all fit under? Will McKenna form part of that, or seek some form of Green rapprochement if they pull out of government?
It seems doubtful a left alliance can be built in Dublin, and yet that’s exactly what would put them above the critical mass required to develop a genuine left alternative to the centre-left Labour, and to the rightist parties that continue to dominate power in Ireland.
Which leaves the even more intractable problem of whether the left could coalesce around Labour, especially a Labour which seems intent to cosy up to Fine Gael for power and which is increasingly looking to the provinces rather than the capital.