All you need to know about tight race for those Seanad seats

Sidelights of Irish political life: Car parks, farm lanes and enduring absence from home

Maura Hopkins busy canvassing in Wicklow town for the upcoming Seanad Éireann election 2016. Photograph: Garry O’Neill

Maura Hopkins busy canvassing in Wicklow town for the upcoming Seanad Éireann election 2016. Photograph: Garry O’Neill

 

On April 12th at around midday, Daithí de Róiste pulled up his car at the Springhill Hotel on the outskirts of Kilkenny.

As he parked, he noted that he had clocked up 9,200km in the previous 27 days, an average of a staggering 340kms each day.

In that time, de Róiste had visited all 26 counties in the State. It had brought him into hotel car parks, down narrow farm lanes, up the sides of mountains and into every city suburb. On one glorious Thursday evening he drove along the Wild Atlantic Way up the northwest coast of Donegal as the sun set beyond the horizon.

That momentary pleasure was a brief respite in a month-long madcap, relentless, grinding, exhausting journey around the country which had seen him hardly return home to his own bed.

De Róiste is a Fianna Fáil councillor representing Ballyfermot in Dublin. He is also a candidate in the Seanad elections, which is one of the most anomalous and mysterious elections anywhere in Europe. The chamber is our version of the House of Lords but its arcane, convoluted, elitist nature gives the Irish system no bragging rights over the hereditary British upper house.

The month-long odyssey has seen de Róiste chase a relatively rare species. In all just 1,150 people comprise the electorate for 43 of the 60 Seanad seats.

They are the country’s 949 councillors, 158 TDs as well as 53 of the 60 Senators (seven outgoing Senators were elected to the Dáil). It gives rise to the strange phenomenon where elected politicians are the canvassed rather than canvassers.

More than half of those are completely ignored by de Róiste. He hones in on only 400 of those, scattered around the country. They are Fianna Fáil representatives and the small number of Independents who come from that party’s gene pool.

An ebullient straight-talking convivial guy, de Róiste is at the hotel to meet the Fianna Fáil TD Bobby Aylward from Mullinavat and canvass him for his vote. Aylward arrives wearing a cerise geansaí and they have a short friendly chat. “I can’t give you my number one,” says Aylward in reference to a local candidate, “but I’ll give you a high preference”.

The two of them – both big men – are given hurleys and grapple good humouredly for a sliotar as the photographer clicks away.

It’s done and dusted in five minutes. De Róiste returns to his car and takes out an Atlas of Ireland. Neatly typed on to the map are the names and location of each voter he needs to reach. His biro follows the national routes and motorways, the secondary routes and the boreens. Next stop is north Waterford, followed by a zigzag route of south Kildare and west Wicklow. He his hoping to hit about 10 votes today.

Crestfallen

About 100 miles east, in Wicklow town Maura Hopkins is also far from home. She is from Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon and narrowly failed to take a seat for Fine Gael in the general election. She was crestfallen but had little time to brood. Within a fortnight, she had secured a Seanad nomination and hit the road. We meet at 3pm. She had started in Lucan in west Dublin that morning and canvassed five Fine Gael councillors and TDs so far, all of them in Wicklow, and hopes to meet another three or four before day’s end.

“You meet them everywhere, mostly in their homes. I have my wellies in the car as well as maps and contact numbers for all the councillors. I tend to ring ahead and use Google maps to find them. It’s very hard to schedule as you are never sure how long you will stay,” she says.

“For the first two weeks I was trying to get home every night but it’s become impossible. We have sheep lambing at our farm and I could do with being at home. It’s impossible. We had our first set of quadruplets (lambs) but I have yet to see them because of this.”

Hopkins has bumped into a few of her rivals on the road as she too clocks up thousand of kilometres. “You know from when you visit a councillor that somebody is just ahead of you on the road or somebody is tailgating you,” she says.

The remaining 17 seats in the Seanad are also strange creations. Six of them are reserved for another elite electorate: the graduates of the National University of Ireland (NUI) and Trinity College Dublin (TCD) . The final 11 seats are nominated by the taoiseach of the day to help have an in-built government majority in the Seanad.

Averil Power has experience of both types of election. She did the “chicken and chips” circuit of county councillors in 2011 as a Fianna Fáil candidate. Now she is an Independent seeking election as one of three TCD senators.

“I thought the other one was gruelling but the University one is more stressful,” she says. “The last time the worst part was being away from home for so long. I was not home for a month, staying in different B&Bs, trying to find the electorate. It was lonely because it was just you, not a team. The advantage was you meet every voter face-to-face.

“With TCD, it’s impossible to do that. There are 60,000 voters spread across the world. There is very little opportunity to engage on a one-to-one basis.”

University candidates traditionally relied on election literature posted out as well as trying to get “hits” on the national media. The advent of social media, Facebook in particular, has made it easier to reach potential graduate voters.

Power has gone a step further and has done actual canvassing, using the register to knock doors in areas of Dublin where there are most graduates. It’s hit and miss. On some streets, there is only one door to knock on. But at least, she says, it has allowed her engage face-to-face with some graduates.

The problem with the university seats are well-ventilated. De Valera created them for diversity, especially to give Protestantism a voice with three TCD seats. More than three decades ago, a referendum was passed which would have extended the franchise to other third level institutions but – like every other reform in the Seanad – the initiative was allowed go fallow.

Both the NUI and TCD have made great efforts to clean up their registers (to remove, for example, voters who graduated so long ago they are either dead or the world’s longest living humans). However, because the legislation is 80 years old, it has not kept pace with a changing society. Many addresses for graduates are hopelessly out of date. Moreover, only about a third of graduates are actually registered.

NUI graduates

A committee on Seanad reform chaired by NUI chancellor Maurice Manning recommended a move to an electronic register but that has yet to happen. There’s also a question as to why so many graduates don’t even get to be on the register. It is reckoned there are over 300,000 living NUI graduates but only a third are registered.

As things stand the law requires every single ballot paper to be posted by registered post. There are 103,000 names on the NUI register and 58,000 on the TCD one. About a fifth are returned (often because the homeowner is out at work). Those who actually vote probably comprise just 10 per cent of all graduates.

Seanad Éireann is a creature of de Valera’s 1937 Constitution and the legislation that governs its election and powers mostly date from then, with a couple of minor amendments.

Its composition reflects that bygone era rather than this one. The 43 seats elected by elected politicians are “vocational” seats. There are five panels: Administrative, Labour, Industrial and Commercial, Culture and Education, and Agriculture.

Those elected are supposed to be associated with those vocations and those candidates on the outside panel are nominated by bodies as diverse as Conradh na Gaeilge, the Irish Dental Association and the National Association of Regional Game Councils.

The outside and inside panels add a further layer of complication to the process that might confound even Albus Dumbledore. To get on the inside panel you need to be nominated by four parliamentarians. If you are on the outside panel you require backing from a designated nominating body. On each panel, a certain amount of those elected must come from the outside and inside panels. For example on the Labour Panel of 11 seats, four must be outside, four must be inside, with the last three from either side. As there are fewer inside candidates, the chances of being elected are marginally higher. And so the party favourites usually get a slot inside.

The electorate is allowed to vote separately in each of the five panels. So if you are an elected representative who is also a graduate, you will effectively have six Seanad votes.

If de Valera created an electoral maze, the paradox is the outcome of the election is really easy to predict.

In general, elected representatives are loyal and vote along party lines, with very few exceptions.

Thanks to a strong election in 2014, Fianna Fáil has 255 or so councillors, as well as 44 TDs, and nine outgoing Senators (three others were elected to the Dáil). It can also rely on support from some gene pool Independents. That means it should win 17 seats.

Fine Gael lost seats in both the local elections and general election and should expect to win 12 seats. Sinn Féin tripled its number of councillors in 2015 (to 159) and also made gains in the general election. It should see its representation rise from three to eight seats.

The Labour party voting pool has receded to less than a quota with poor local elections (only 59 seats throughout the State) and a disastrous election in February. It should win two seats and is in the hunt for a third. Likewise Independent candidates should win three seats, possibly four.

Main rival

So if it is pre-ordained why do the likes of de Róiste and Hopkins traipse around the country? Their battle is not against other parties, it’s against their party colleagues. De Róiste is on the Labour Panel where there are eight Fianna Fáil candidates vying for four seats. His main rival is seen to be Paul McAuliffe, the highly-regarded councillor from Dublin North West, also chosen on an inside panel.

For Hopkins, she’s one of five Fine Gael candidates battling for only two guaranteed seats. She is up against three incumbent senators, Tom Sheahan, Martin Conway and Eamon Coghlan as well as Paddy Coffey, the minister of State who lost his seat.

Although it is running multiple candidates for the first time, there are no such worries for Sinn Féin. The party has issued instructions to each councillor and TD on how to cast their votes. It means that neither Trevor Ó Clochartaigh nor Rose Conway-Walsh (both on the agricultural panel) embarked on epic journeys to secure a seat: both focused their attention on Independents and other who might support them.

The University seats are a little harder to predict but certainly not impossible. All three incumbent TCD senators are standing again. David Norris and Ivana Bacik should be safe with Sean Barrett seen as perhaps the most vulnerable. Power would be one of those who would be seen with a good chance of slipping in, along with the media lecturer and disability campaigner Tom Clonan, and student leader Lynn Ruane.

The NUI contest is more open and it is a crowded field with 30 candidates vying for the three seats. The only incumbent is Ronan Mullen who should retain his seat. With John Crown and Fergal Quinn retiring, high-profile candidates Michael McDowell and David Begg are seen as the front-runners. However, there are other nationally-known candidates including: Pádraig Ó Céidigh; Alice Mary Higgins (daughter of President Michael D Higgins); Carol Hunt, Enda O Coinin, Kieran Rose, Ellen O’Malley Dunlop, Rory Hearne, Eddie Murphy, Pearse Flannery and Laura Harmon.

The poll will close at 11am on April 25th. At that stage Maura Hopkins can return to see the quadruplet lambs on her farm. Such experiences are rare and peculiar. But not quite as rare peculiar as her experience, or that of 9,200km man de Róiste, over the previous six weeks.

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