Seanad byelection: obscure Irish political event nears an end

Maíria Cahill set to come out on top when 200-odd votes are counted on Friday

Independent Senator David Norris has criticised the Labour Party’s candidate for a vacant Seanad seat, Maíria Cahill, for refusing to answer questions on her former links to a dissident republican group.

 

One of the most obscure events in Irish politics is wrapping up today, voting in the Seanad byelection.

The electorate is a tiny one, limited to the State’s TDs and Senators, and even though the count will be in Leinster House on Friday, the 226 eligible voters cannot physically vote there.

They must send their ballot in by registered letter, the last of which must be dispatched by Thursday morning.

This convention dates back to when the second Seanad was formed. But like everything else about the crumbling mansion that is the Upper House, nothing really changes.

This is the second byelection to have taken place in the lifetime of the government. The last resulted in an unexpected victory for Independent Gerard Craughwell when the Fine Gael candidate, Donegal supermarket owner and renowned modern art expert John McNulty ran into hot water after being appointed to the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA).

Coalition backing

The seat this time is a Labour Party one. Popular Donegal senator Jimmy Harte has stood down for health reasons. Its candidate is Belfast woman Maíria Cahill - and with the backing of both Government parties she is a shoo-in.

However, she has run into some controversy, about her past involvement with a dissident Republican group - the Republican Network for Unity (RNU).

Cahill has never denied being involved. She has said she was national secretary for a few hours in 2010 and associated with it for no more than six months.

That was all played out last year. What has re-stoked the controversy has been the email sent to all Oireachtas members by Catherine McCartney, one of the sisters of Robert McCartney who was murdered by the IRA.

It is clear there has been a spectacular falling out between Cahill and McCartney, who are separately seen as moral lodestars for opponents of Republican duplicity over its murky side.

Full clarification

McCartney has argued that Cahill’s explanation has been insufficient and she needs to give a full clarification of her involvement.

“This cannot be regarded as a minor issue or an irrelevance to the appointment to a political office,” wrote Ms McCartney in the email.

Cahill has made no public appearances for over a week and would not take part in RTÉ’s Late Debate programme last week which invited in all candidates for a special programme. The other candidates are: Keith Swanick of Fianna Fáíl; Sinéad Burke of Sinn Féin and independent candidate Jerry Beades.

The Labour spokesman has said Ms Cahill fully explained her role in RNU last year and have pointed to her statement carried in full on the Slugger O’Toole website in October 2014.

That silence has caused some disquiet among Independent Senators. Fidelma Healy-Eames and David Norris have both raised their concerns about her refusal to clarify publicly her involvement with Healy-Eames saying has switched her vote. Fianna Fáíl chief whip Seán Ó Fearghaíl has also argued her explanation has bee insufficient.

Will it make a difference? Only in the margin of victory. It was expected that Cahill would draw support across the board but this intervention might appreciably lower the number of Oireachtas members who support her candidacy.

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