Castration of rapists was not Government policy, nor indeed party policy, Brian Lenihan Jnr found himself having to stress.
Twenty years ago this week, the late Fianna Fáil minister was dispatched on a mission akin to General Custer in Montana, to serve as director of elections in a Tipperary South by-election.
His candidate, Michael Maguire, expressed some rather firm views on law and order, including how to deal with serial rapists. In an entirely predictable outcome, Fine Gael held its seat, in what became Michael Noonan’s electoral highpoint as leader.
Coming just a few weeks after the Nice Treaty, Fianna Fáil finished third, prompting all sorts of prophecies of doom for Bertie Ahern’s government.
Twelve months later, Ahern romped home in the general election, only denied an overall majority by a warning to voters from the PDs’ Michael McDowell about single-party government, while up a lamp post in Ranelagh.
The moral of the story is don’t read too much into by-elections. It’s back to Ranelagh a generation later for the Dublin Bay South by-election in two weeks’ time. The result won’t alter the arithmetic in the Dáil, but it will have repercussions.
The prevailing wisdom is the seat vacated by former housing minister Eoghan Murphy will safely stay with Fine Gael. Normally, the big parties seek a family member to run in by-elections. Without any progeny of Murphy’s, Fine Gael opted for a clone in James Geoghegan.
The Blueblood pedigree would seemingly be enough to get him elected, so the party decided to ditch Kate O’Connell. Fine Gael is throwing all its resources into him but the doubts persist. “I think he’s grand, but the fact we’re even talking about a contest shows he’s not great,” a Fine Gael figure confided.
Ivana Bacik is the outside bet, seen as having the possibility of stealing Fine Gael’s liberal cosmopolitan clothes.
She will be more dependent on her own excellent reputation as a campaigner, lawyer and legislator than the Labour Party banner. Bacik’s task is enormous. She needs to dramatically outperform her own party’s standing, even in a constituency where it has a traditional base, and rely on being transfer-friendly.
Fianna Fáil’s campaign was best summed up by the tale of a Fine Gael minister being shown one of its awfully cringeworthy campaign videos in the convention centre, as a Dáil vote was awaited. “What? What? What is it? Is this one of Oliver Callan’s sketches?” the minister asked colleagues in disbelief. Fifth place would be a good result for Jim O’Callaghan’s candidate, Deirdre Conroy.
The Green Party’s Claire Byrne is a safe choice from the Eamon Ryan camp and has a solid record as a councillor in two areas. Whether Fianna Fáil and the Greens direct transfers to their Coalition partners in Fine Gael will be vital.
The not-so dark horse is Sinn Féin. The party is playing down its prospects, pointing to it being an old Fine Gael stronghold. The portrayal by Sinn Féin of a ‘David versus Goliath battle’ is less than convincing.
Contrary to its own expectation management, the party is throwing every effort into this by-election. Riding high in the polls, Sinn Féin is putting its most marketable candidate into the field in former MEP Lynn Boylan.
The party won a seat in Dublin Bay South in last year’s general election. The argument that it was only because Chris Andrews had been a Fianna Fáil TD previously and his family name has a broader appeal is too simplistic.
Vote tallies for the constituency compiled by Dr Ian Richardson of UCD illustrate perfectly his research finding that Sinn Féin and Fine Gael voters are “completely divergent” and highly unlikely to vote for the other party.
Sinn Féin got 50pc of the votes in the largely working-class Ringsend-Irishtown, where Fine Gael got 8pc, while across the Londonbridge Road in neighbouring middle-class Sandymount, Fine Gael got 35pc support, while Sinn Féin got 8pc.
Sinn Féin cleaned out the working-class areas of South Inner City, Ringsend, Irishtown and across in Kimmage. Fine Gael dominated in the middle-class suburbs Sandymount, Ballsbridge, Ranelagh, Milltown, Rathgar and Terenure. Fine Gael’s overall vote of 28pc on a bad day was well ahead of Sinn Féin’s 16pc on a good day.
Herein lies the thesis that Sinn Féin can’t possibly win a by-election because the constituency encompassing Dublin 4 is too posh and Fine Gael’s support has recovered dramatically.
Forget the myths. A by-election is a different ballgame entirely, with factors like sending the government of the day a message – on this occasion it’s about housing.
Mary-Lou McDonald has turned Sinn Féin into the best-supported party in the land. Since she took over as Sinn Féin leader though, the party has had a series of organisational calamities.
The ill-fated Presidential election campaign was followed by a dismal local and European election performance. The Westminster elections saw the party vote drop and a hammering in Derry.
The general election was superb from a profile and policy perspective as the ‘Shinner Surge’ took hold. But from a party HQ viewpoint, Sinn Féin managed to commit the cardinal sin of not having enough candidates in the field to win the seats on offer from the voters.
The strategic trump card of the past few years was the Dublin Mid-West by-election in late 2019, won by anticipating a low turnout. Sinn Féin strategists accept they can’t go ‘under the radar’ on this occasion. You don’t run a big campaign with a high-profile candidate to lose.
Sinn Féin’s days as the underdogs are over and the hokum excuses aren’t valid any more. The pressure is on to deliver. They’re in it to win it and it won’t be a shock if they pull it off.
The Bermuda Triangle of leafy suburban southside Dublin constituencies, Dublin Bay South, Dublin Rathdown and Dún Laoghaire, sees political careers appear and disappear overnight with dramatic swing votes. The obvious predictions often go out the window.