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EOIN NEYLON: Seanad elections strengthen Fianna Fáil’s hand for Government formation

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Eoin Neylon was on the ballot paper for the 2016 Seanad Elections, The Clare Echo’s political columnist looks back on an election which “is not for the faint-hearted” and predicts Government formation may happen sooner than anticipated.

After five long days of counting, involving counts in three different centres, 49 of the 60 seats in the 26th Seanad have now been filled. This gruelling campaign is not for the faint hearted and anyone watching the counts last week will have gotten a taste of that for themselves. Because of physical distancing rules and the current pandemic, candidates or their agents were the only people allow in the count centre along with staff who were spaced out accordingly. Most candidates didn’t attend, nor did they send an agent, meaning the first they knew of their fate was the same online broadcast announcement of the counts that the rest of us politicos were watching. Unusual times indeed.

In the end, it proved a good week for Fianna Fáil who gained two extra seats in the Upper House, bringing their total to 16. This was a great overperformance given the fact that they only controlled 29% of the votes but won 37% of the vocational panel seats on offer.

Fine Gael will be kicking themselves having certainly left at least one seat behind them. Sinn Féin were left breathing heavy sighs of relief as they managed to cling on in several panels to just about take the last seat. Their loss of two seats could have been much worse. The Independent ranks held firm, albeit with changes in personnel and from which panels they were elected.

It was a good week for Labour as they saw all four of their candidates elected on the vocational panels as well as their sole candidate on the Trinity College Panel. The Greens also doubled their representation in the Seanad but will be disappointed that high-profile candidate Saoirse McHugh failed to get elected despite polling in second place on the first count on a five-seat panel. The Social Democrats blew their chance of electing their first senator as their sole candidate, despite polling well, proved incapable of winning transfers to make that high first preference vote count.

Away from the vocational panels, those 43 seats elected solely by Councillors and Oireachtas members, the 6 University Panel seats (3 TCD and 3 NUI) proved surprising. The surprise here being that there was no surprise. For only the third time in history, all six outgoing Senators were re-elected, a feat only previously managed in 1938 and 2002.

However, the talking point of the week is undoubtedly the anomaly that was the Sinn Féin performance. On each panel where they ran one candidate, they picked up roughly 80% of a quota. On the other two panels, they got just shy of one who quota of votes and 1.6 quotas worth. Yet, despite the good vote, which would usually assure any candidate in a multi-seat constituency a swift election, SF candidates were left waiting to the very end in each of the five panels to finally be deemed elected, often without meeting the quota. The SF candidates proved transfer toxic from all parties and from Independents. At a time where all parties are talking about Government formation, this is a telling reflection of SF’s utter failure to pull support from other quarters to for a Program for Government. It shows that SF just are not popular with all other political grouping at present. This wasn’t always the case though. In previous Seanad elections, they were able to do deals, win entire blocks of votes and transfer well. Not this time and I think it’s a fair reflection of how all other politicians view SF’s tactics as of late both on social media and behind closed doors.

Clare had four representatives vying for election but, alas, only one proved successful in returning, Senator Martin Conway. The North Clare man was in a good position even before the boxes were opened on his Administrative Panel election on Friday morning. There were only 4 FG candidates and of those, only Conway had been nominated by an outside nominating body, the Council for the Blind. His FG running mates had been nominated on the inside sub-panel by their FG Oireachtas colleagues.

With 7 seats in total up for grabs, 3 of these had to go to nominees of the Oireachtas (the inside sub-panel) and 3 to those nominated by ascribed nominating bodies (the outside sub-panel). FG were always going to have enough votes for 2 seats meaning his odds were slightly above 50-50 before a vote was even counted. And as it proved, Conway was the joint FG favourite on the first count getting 90 of FG’s 288 first preference vote on the first count. It was only a matter of time, and the elimination of the two FG candidates behind him, for him to be returned to the Upper House.

This panel also saw Clare’s Ann Marie Flanagan contest as an Independent candidate. Party nominees do have it easier than Independent nominees in that they have a natural base to canvass from. Independents on the other hand are fishing from the pool of Independent Councillors who themselves are also being tapped up by party candidates. Flanagan’s 22 votes unfortunately weren’t enough really get going but that said, is still an impressive result when you recall that there was no natural tie or link to any of the electors which party candidates enjoy.

Earlier on Thursday, the 9-seater Industrial and Commercial Panel count took place. This is widely referred to as the panel of death, as I found out for myself as a candidate 4 years ago. As it is the panel with the most nominating bodies, it therefore usually ends up with the most candidates. Timmy Dooley was an outside nominee here and it had been hoped he’d do well given his position within the FF party coupled with the fact he was the FF director of elections for the Seanad four years ago.

Dooley’s first preference vote of 35 was a commendable tally given how crowded a field it was. Sadly, for the Mountshannon man, it proved not high enough, nor could he attract enough transfers to overhaul the FF candidates ahead of him. His elimination on the 22nd count with a running total of 52 votes saw him exit as the 5th place FF candidates where the party would go on to elect three Senators.

Earlier in the day Michael Vaughan made his electoral debut on the same panel. As a newcomer, this was always going to be very tough, as the hotelier would no doubt admit himself. On elimination, 66% of his vote transferred to Timmy Dooley, from whom he’d borrowed them, as Vaughan himself put it. The remaining 33% of his tally transferring to Galway City Councillor Ollie Crowe who ended up winning a seat after a mammoth 15 hours of counting.

With it all over bar the shouting, Clare’s number of Oireachtas members remains at five with Conway joining the four TDs elected two months previously. Hopefully they can work well together to get Clare back up and running post Coronavirus. With 16 Senate seats though, FF will look to government formation talks with an improved hand given their increased ability to get legislation passed through both houses. Even in a lockdown, the world of political can move fast. I suspect we’ll have a Government sooner rather than later.

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