Sunday, July 29, 2007-
The complexity of Seanad voting means political parties have to have clear strategy, as Fine Gael found out to its cost, writes Niamh Connolly.
The Seanad elections, which took place last week, are a political anorak’s heaven with complex rules, counts stretching over days and candidates elected on a fraction of a vote.
With the vast majority of citizens ineligible to vote in Seanad elections, there is little wonder that a sense of apathy surrounds the ballot. By Tuesday lunchtime, the election for the Agriculture panel had reached the 19th count, with no sign of a conclusion.
‘‘It’s like watching paint dry,” was the view of one seasoned political pundit. The election is largely of interest only to political parties, political has-beens and political wannabes serving their time until the next election.
Seanad hopefuls have been travelling up and down the country distributing CDs, pens, and anything else they can barter in return for the votes of city and county councillors – who effectively hold the key to who gets elected.
‘‘The general public can’t vote or attend the count either, so it’s very much an insiders’ election,” said Fine Gael’s legal adviser Barry Ward. ‘‘If you have an interest, it can be fascinating, but it is a very technical ballot particularly with the ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ panel rules.
‘‘It’s also quite complex unless you have a keen interest in the whole process and there are limits to the numbers of people in the room who would understand all the quirks.”
The total electorate for the Seanad’s five vocational panels is just 1,093 citizens – including 166 TDs and 50 senators, but by far the most influential block are the 877 councillors.
Only graduates of the National University of Ireland (NUI) and Trinity College Dublin are entitled to vote in Seanad elections, but just 37 per cent of the NUI’s 100,000 electorate and TCD’s 48,880 electorate bothered to register a vote, according to figures obtained by The Sunday Business Post from the registrar’s offices.
Fianna Fail was satisfied that its pact with the Green Party and the Progressive Democrats held tight and that it received between 50 and 60 per cent of independent councillors’ votes. Despite dire predictions that it would lose its majority in the senate, the party lost just two seats.
‘‘We were facing an environment where we had lost 80 council seats in 2004,” said a senior Fianna Fail source. ‘‘It was always going to be difficult, but we did well to lose only two seats in that context.”
The result sets the Green Party on a path to secure two Taoiseach’s nominations early next week – the most likely contenders being Dan Boyle in Cork South Central and Deirdre de Burca in Wicklow. Nonetheless, the Green Party will be actively seeking reform of the Seanad system.
‘‘John Gormley [the Green Party leader and Minister for the Environment] has the responsibility to bring about Seanad reform – in terms of how the constitution is drawn up, the roles, and what procedures are used to elect the Seanad,” said Boyle. ‘‘We think everything is up for review and it’s something that I know he takes an interest in.”
In the final figures, Fianna Fail got 22 seats (down two seats), Fine Gael got 14 (down one), the Labour Party got six seats (up two), Sinn Fein got one seat and independent candidates got six.
History was made with the election pact between Labour and Sinn Fein, with Labour votes securing the election of Sinn Fein’s first senator, Pearse Doherty.
The Labour Party’s Alex White and Phil Prendergast were elected thanks to a tight transfer pact with Sinn Fein.
Surprisingly for Labour, Michael McCarthy, who failed to receive a Seanad nomination from Labour and was backed instead by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, was also elected on the back of Sinn Fein votes.
This development is seen as highly significant and it may clear the way for future electoral partnerships between various political parties and Sinn Fein. The irony that the Labour Party leader, Pat Rabbitte, poured scorn on pre-election deals of any sort with Sinn Fein before the general election, has not been lost on other political parties.
‘‘I don’t want to see a situation where either government combination would be reliant on Sinn Fein, and Sinn Fein would be driving it from outside,” the Labour leader told reporters on the last day of the general election campaign.
While there is some unease within Labour about the pact, others believe it should start to end the negative attitude towards Sinn Fein.
As part of the Labour-Sinn Fein pact, Labour is to extend part of its Dail speaking time to Sinn Fein, which has no such rights because it returned fewer than seven deputies at the election.
This would prove a significant boost to Sinn Fein, which stood to be excluded under the Dail’s Standing Orders from contributing to second stage debates in the Dail .
A spokesman for the Labour Party was unable to confirm that the deal extends to Sinn Fein taking part of Labour’s speaking time.
But political sources speculated that the Labour-Sinn Fein Seanad pact represented a new left-leaning repositioning of the Labour Party in the Dail after its unsuccessful alliance with Fine Gael in the election.
The real loser in the Seanad elections was Fine Gael, which lost one seat despite increasing its councillors by 16 at the 2004 local elections and by 20 Dail seats in the general election.
Fine Gael lost its seat to Sinn Fein on the Agricultural panel, which was a direct result of the Labour-Sinn Fein pact.
The complexity of the Seanad voting system means political parties have to be clear about their strategy, as Fine Gael found out to its cost. The system of ‘inside’ panels of candidates (nominated by Oireachtas members) and ‘outside’ panels (nominated by outside bodies) means a candidate can be defeated by another candidate with fewer votes.
Liam Twomey, who lost his seat in Wexford in the general election took a Seanad seat for Fine Gael on the Culture and Educational panel. However, Fianna Fail’s Ann Ormond, who was an ‘outside’ nominee of bodies outside the Oireachtas was elected with fewer votes than Fine Gael’s Terence Slowey on the last count on the same panel.
Slowey lost out because he was an ‘inside’ nominee of the Oireachtas as special rules governing the quota of seats reserved for candidates of ‘outside’ nominating bodies.
The view of other parties was that Fine Gael had only itself to blame in selecting two strong candidates – Twomey and Slowey – to run as ‘inside’ panel nominees.