What can we learn from election 2020 and the Dublin Bay North results?

Inside the RDS stand a group of Independent Left supporters, smiling, fists raised, many of them wearing red 'Vote No.1 John Lyons' T-shirts. In the centre, in a blue coat, is John Lyons. On his left is Niamh McDonald. Behind them is a yellow placard from the RDS count centre saying: Dublin Bay North.
Independent Left had a vibrant and energetic campaign in Election 2020, Dublin Bay North

Fine Gael called this election and rubbed their hands with excitement. Full employment, Leo Varadkar looking great in dealings with Boris Johnson over Brexit, property incomes soaring. What could possibly go wrong?

Pretty much everything that can go wrong when you live in a champagne bubble and have no insight into the struggle of those on medium and low incomes. You speak with complacency and in ignorance, you are contemptuous of the electorate and you think, ‘a future to look forward to’ is a clever slogan.

Ireland has 78,000 millionaires in 2020 and they certainly have a future to look forward to. For the rest of us, unless something changes, we can only see more pain over the fact our incomes are eaten up by mortgages and rents; more difficulty accessing health services our families need, with longer waiting times; and more deprivation and anti-social activity in our neglected communities.

There was a roar of anger released in this election and it was channelled behind Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin are a working class party in the sense that their activists are generally drawn from the working class and they know the challenges working people face. So their policies and their articulation of that roar led them to becoming the lightning rod for our fury at Fine Gael and also at Fianna Fáil. We hadn’t forgotten who landed us with massive tax burdens by bailing out their banker friends and who backed Fine Gael with ‘confidence and supply’.

Understanding the rise of the Sinn Féin vote

Our class found a way to lash out at Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil and it was through Sinn Féin, whose spokespeople did a great job of expressing how we felt and offering well-informed refutations of right wing lies (remember how Leo Varadakar said during a TV debate that the rent freeze in Berlin hadn’t worked? It has been agreed but hasn’t come in yet). Even though the large newspapers and television stations did all they could to hammer down the Sinn Féin vote in the last days of the campaign, the electorate in working class areas wasn’t budging.

Some of the tallies as the boxes opened were incredible. Eighty, ninety percent Sinn Féin and just handfuls of votes for the right wing parties.

The transformation of the Irish political landscape in election 2020 is exciting for those of us on the left and humiliating for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

In Dublin Bay North, as elsewhere, at first it seemed as though the socialist voice of the working class was going to also be swept away by the growth of the Sinn Féin vote. The Green vote too, might have been a challenge for socialists (although it was more of a challenge for Labour and other middle-ground and middle class parties). But as the counts went on, the transfers from Sinn Féin were strongly to the left, much more so than had been anticipated, although there were some losses to the presence of radical socialists in the Dáil and as activists with the advantages that being a TD brings to helping organise campaigns. We were sorry to see Ruth Coppinger and Séamus Healy lose their seats but delighted that after a difficult looking start, on the whole, the socialist left held their ground. In fact, we should have gained a seat in Dublin Bay North and at the expense of Seán Haughey of Fianna Fáil, who before the election had been a twenty-to-one favourite.

A list of candidates from Dublin Bay North and the details of all fourteen counts of Election 2020. The top candidates, in order of their first preference vote, were Denise Mitchell, Sinn Féin (21,344); Richard Bruton, Fine Gael (11,156); Cian O'Callaghan, Social Democrats (6,229); Aodhán Ó Riodáin, Labour (8,127); Seán Haughey, Fianna Fáil (6,651); David Healy, Green Party (5,042); John Lyons, Independent Left (1,882).
Fianna Fáil failed to get a quota in Dublin Bay North and Haughey staggered over the line only by being deemed elected on the elimination of the Green Party

It must have come as an unpleasant shock for Fianna Fáil that far from winning a second seat, Seán Haughey was down at 6,651 first preferences and ultimately, even after 13 rounds of transfers, couldn’t get a quota. Our own first preference vote was a disappointment, at only 1,882 for our candidate Councillor John Lyons. This seemed to be at odds with the very strong energy for change we’d been encountering on the doorsteps but the transfers of poll-topping Denise Mitchell for Sinn Féin clarified what had happened. There was indeed a massive vote against the establishment and for the left but it had first found a channel in Sinn Féin.

A photo taken of the large screen at the RDS on the day of the count, 10 February 2020, for Dublin Bay North and the transfer of Sinn Féin Denis Mitchell's surplus. Highlighted in red boxes are three candidates John Lyons, Independent Left, who gained 1,823 votes, Bernard Mulvany, SPBP, who gained 1,960 votes and Michael O'Brien, SPBP who gained 1,193 votes. Between them the socialist left could have won a seat on these figures had they not split the vote.

The split left vote saved Haughey’s seat

Elsewhere, the huge Sinn Féin transfers were bringing in candidates of the left and that should have been the case in Dublin Bay North too. Except that that the nearly 5,000 transfers for socialists got split three ways. Instead of one candidate reaching around 9,000 votes and pushing Haughey into sixth place by the end of the election, the Fianna Fáil candidate got lucky. Inevitably, transfers get diluted: even between members of the same party, 50 – 60% is typical. So around half of the votes expressing a desire by working class communities to vote Sinn Féin then vote left were thrown away and in the end, John Lyons, the best placed of the socialists, went out on the thirteenth count with 6,421.

In advance of the next general election, there needs to be a good-faith conversation among the potential left candidates about local government and Dáil seats, in the hope of avoiding this situation arising again.

Positive outcomes for Independent Left from GE2020

Despite the fact that John Lyons did not win Independent Left’s first ever Dáil seat, there are a lot of positives from the election for our small party. With no national presence, financial support, media presence or infrastructure we ran a fantastic campaign which in other circumstances would have brought about a shock for the right and a terrific victory. It helped that our election material was absolutely in tune with our audience. Our theme was ‘a tale of two cities’ and we both listened to and helped articulate the feeling that while the very rich and the landlords were getting richer, the rest of us were being left behind.

Eóghan Richard Ó'nia  in a red, 'Vote No 1 John Lyons' t-shirt is on the left, one hand raised, explaining to a journalist while another journalist watches and a third films with a camera, that the two party political system in Ireland is over.
Eóghan Richard Ó’nia of Independent Left, explaining to the media why the two-party system is gone for good

We got energy too, from the Childcare Strike and the Teachers’ Strike, which we connected to in Dublin Bay North with a lively contingent on the childcare march and support for the picket lines at the schools around the constituency.

Another big positive for us was meeting new people who have joined Independent Left and have added to our mix of socialists, environmentalists, trade unionists, parents, students, young and old. We are still a project that is evolving but it was really interesting to see how the joint effort of the election brought out a variety of skills and expertise among us and also bonded us in the common effort. Modern socialist parties can be a lot more freeform, dynamic, lively and conversational than the traditional model of a small, centralised handful of people with years of expertise directing everyone else. Facebook groups, WhatsApp groups, etc. allow for everyone to have an opinion and – in our case – a lot of laughs too. If you have been supporting Independent Left in this campaign, you’d be welcome to join us.

What will happen next in Irish politics after GE2020?


Nationally, a discussion is taking place about government formation and it seems that Sinn Féin are positioning themselves to enter government with Fianna Fáil and a smaller party or two. Probably, there is a huge debate within Sinn Féin about this and we hope that the anti-Fianna Fáil voices win. Why? Because Fianna Fáil might well offer a border poll. they might even allow Sinn Féin to introduce a rent freeze, which of course would be very welcome. But the price for these would be too high, because the wealth of the very rich and especially corporations would be untouchable, because it would be business as usual in every other regard. Worse, it would disillusion those people who made the effort to vote for change. While Independent Left have been offering hope, diversity and solidarity within working class communities and trying to direct the alienation people feel against the real causes of this, the system we live under, there was a far right presence in this election who offered despair, division and a violent, racist and homophobic turning inwards of our communities. They will try to capitalise on the sense of betrayal if Sinn Féin backed a Fianna Fáil government.

But isn’t the alternative a Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael government? Wouldn’t that be worse? Actually no, it wouldn’t. Because the ability of any government to impose policies that harm working class communities is set by the willingness of people to stand up and organise and resist the government. We defeated the water charges and with a popular Sinn Féin party in opposition, we can not only throw back anything the government brings at us, workers can push now for pay equality, pay increases, while working class communities can challenge for more resources. This is a much better scenario and one that has a very strong prospect of leading to a left of centre government next time around, than one where for the sake of a few policy gains the excitement currently alive in working class communities subsides into apathy and disillusionment.

Regardless of how the political consequences of election 2020 develop nationally, Independent Left have emerged from the election as a stronger force in Dublin Bay North and we look forward to playing our part in the campaigns to come.

Message from John Lyons to his supporters after the count for Dublin Bay North on Sunday 11 February 2020.

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