Influence of transfers in Election 2016 must not be overstated

Anlaysis: Although first count results can be overturned, it is still a rare development

New Green Party TD  Catherine Martin, with party leader  Eamon Ryan, benefited heavily from transfers. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

New Green Party TD Catherine Martin, with party leader Eamon Ryan, benefited heavily from transfers. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

It is always fascinating after each Irish election to look at the impact of transfers. It is particularly interesting now that our party system has become so balkanised.

However, it is important not to overstate their importance. The overwhelming majority of seats were decided by first preferences. As the psephologist Sean Donnelly repeatedly points out, the most important determinant of whether a candidate is elected is whether they are “in the frame” on the first count – ie in the top five in a five seat, the top four in a four seater, or, of course, the top three in a three-seater.

Now that counting is finally nearing its end, it is clear that only 12 or 13 of the 158 deputies in the new Dáil will win their seats because of transfers. If on Saturday we stopped counting after the first counts and declared the results, all but a dozen or so of the seats would have been filled by the same people who were hoisted into the air hours, or even days later. However, transfers do matter. And there is no way of knowing in advance which constituencies will be decided by them.

This time, the most dramatic example happened to Independent deputy Maureen O’ Sullivan in the three-seat Dublin Central. Surprisingly, O’Sullivan polled badly on first preferences, getting just 1,990 votes. The quota was 5,922. She was in sixth place. Everyone assumed she was finished.

O’Sullivan and her team had retired to her house for tea, reconciling themselves to the loss of the seat. Over the course of Saturday night, however, she got a phenomenal rate of transfers from both party candidates and other Independents and ultimately took the last of the three seats.

It was the most dramatic illustration of the potential of transfers seen since Bertie Ahern, then taoiseach, brought in his running-mate Cyprian Brady in 2007, when Brady had polled 939 first preferences.

Transfer-magnetic

The Green Party, which had suffered collateral toxicity from being in government with Fianna Fáil before 2011, returned to being transfer-magnetic this time. This was especially important in Dublin Rathdown where deputy leader Catherine Martin managed, with the help especially of Fianna Fáil and Independent transfers, to leap-frog both Senator Mary White and former minister Alan Shatter.

Transfer discipline within the parties is also important. This time, different patterns were displayed. Table 1 shows the rate at which party candidates transferred to a colleague at the time of elimination in the last three elections. The most striking features of the figures are the fact that in this election, the transfer rate between Fine Gael candidates was considerably better than that between Fianna Fáil candidates.

In 2011, such discipline brought Fine Gael a dramatic seat bonus. This time, the seat bonus was even higher on their reduced vote share in this election. Even more striking, however, is the improvement in Sinn Féin’s transfer discipline. In 2011, 58 per cent of the transfers from a candidate went to a running mate, where one was still standing. In 2016, Sinn Féin pushed up that internal transfer rate to a phenomenal 76 per cent.

The second table shows what happened in this election with terminal transfers, by which is meant transfer from a party candidate when he or she has no running mate or that running mate is already eliminated or elected. Here the most striking finding is the great favour which Labour did Fine Gael in so many constituencies. When the Labour candidates were eliminated, they transferred at an impressive rate of 54 per cent to a Fine Gael candidate.

Tradition

There has always been a strong tradition of transfers between Labour and Fine Gael. However, this time it mattered more because there were so many Labour eliminations. This strong transfer from Labour was another significant contributor to Fine Gael’s getting such a seat bonus.

The table includes figures for the transfer rate from Independents to each other. While we don’t have comparators with 2011 and 2007, it is notable that Independent transfer goes all over the place and only about 30 per cent of them go to other Independents. The dramatic rise of Independents in this election, therefore, was because they did so well on first counts. They did not need transfers. It is also worth noting that Independents attract a lot of terminal transfers from all of the main parties and in almost in equal measure. They get 17 per cent of such transfers from Fianna Fáil, 14 per cent from Fine Gael and 13 per cent from Labour.

Seat share

Their relatively low transfer rate between each other explains why the Independents, although getting an increasing number of seat, are unlikely ever get a seat share equivalent to their vote share.

The best transfer rate between Independents was, not surprisingly, between two brothers. One of the many impressive features of the double Healy-Rae victory in Kerry was the fact 3,835 of Michael’s massive surplus of 7,165 transferred to Danny, enabling them to take the first two seats in the county comfortably. Again it is worth noting, however, they would have taken two seats anyway because they had husbanded the first preference vote to make sure that the newest of the Healy-Raes on the national stage got almost 10,000 votes of his own.