Counting on the #Seanad #Seanad2020

I wrote this column on Monday March 30th, the eve of the 5 day long count in the 2020 Seanad Election. As I forecast, Fianna Fáil secured 16 seats out of the 43 available on the 5 vocational panels (as it should have done in 2016) and Sinn Féin fell back from 6 to 5 seats, indeed it was within 2 votes of losing another one and falling back to 4 seats. For the first time in decades all six outgoing university Senators were returned. 

Image from Houses of Oireachtas Flickr account

At midday today the second act of the 2020 General Election drama will start to be played out. At that time, at the Printworks hall in Dublin Castle, Oireachtas officials will commence the process of counting Seanad election votes.

The count, or should I more correctly say counts – plural, are expected to run until Friday evening. They will decide the identity of the 43 senators who will serve on the Seanad’s five vocational panels. (Seanad election infographic here).

The Oireachtas communication team will be posting updates from the count via a special webpage and on social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Linkedin.

Updates from the university panel counts, will be found on  the National University of Ireland website and the Trinity College Dublin website.

In previous years the count was run in the members dining room in Leinster House, but it is being shifted to a larger venue to ensure that counters and officials can fully and safely observe the coronavirus physical distancing protocols as they go through the ballots sent by in the 1150 voters.

Despite the people’s October 2013 decision to reject Seanad abolition and opt for reform, the 26th Seanad will be elected, once again, by a narrow electorate comprising:

  • For the 43 seats vocational panel seats: 949 city and county councillors plus 160 members of the incoming Dáil and around 50 outgoing Senators, and
  • For the 6 university seats: Graduates of TCD and NUI

Don’t worry, I don’t intend to launch into a Seanad Reform spiel here. Suffice to say now that this is not what those who defeated the government in 2013 wanted to see.

Several alternative models to elect the Seanad by public franchise, none of which required a referendum, were suggested by the late Feargal Quinn, the late Noel Whelan, Prof John Crown, Katherine Zappone and Michael McDowell. But the losing side in 2013 managed to stymy any progress. Imagine that, the losing side in an election still getting to call the shots afterwards. It couldn’t happen today… could it?

In politics, as in life, you play the cards you are dealt and that means making the most of what this week’s counts bring.

Looking just at the electors for the 43 seats across the 5 vocational panels (think of panels as constituencies) Fianna Fáil with approx. 330 voters (i.e. elected reps who take the party whip) and Fine Gael on approx. 310, should each have enough to win up to 16 seats.

The problem for both is that this was also the case in 2016 when Fianna Fáil only won 14 seats and Fine Gael 13. This despite 20-25% of independent councillors backing their candidates.

Poor candidate strategies and bad vote management in 2016 cost them both seats. There’s no evidence to suggest it’s going to be any different this time. A point I will return to presently.

But first let me highlight something that often gets lost in these discussions. The issue is not just that the current electorate is narrow and purely political – all public representatives – but that the mandate of 85% of them long predates this election.

The situation facing Sinn Féin in the Seanad election neatly demonstrates this conundrum. Though it performed remarkably in February’s Dáil election, that influences less than 15% of the outcome.

The 160 TDs elected in February 2020 account for just 14% of the Seanad Electorate. The remaining 86% were either elected in 2016 (outgoing Senators), or they were elected at the 2019 Local Election – 949 Councillors (including co-optees).

So, as Sinn Féin lost half of its seats (78) last May, it faces into the Seanad count with six sitting Senators and only enough support (around 120 votes) for four seats, five at a huge push. So, despite a Feb 2020 surge which saw it almost tie with Fianna Fáil and ahead of Fine Gael, Sinn Féin will finish up with fewer seats in this Seanad than it had in the last one.

Far be it from me to argue for more Sinn Féin seats, but even a desperate partisan like me can see that this makes no sense.

The count will also show if independents are willing to vote for other. I would be surprised if they see much improvement in their numbers on the vocational panels. Most independents in the next Seanad, as has been the case, will come via the Universities route.

The thing to watch out for with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is not whether they pick up the seats they missed out on in 2016, but whether all the candidates identified as being favoured their respective leaderships succeed.

A few weeks back, in the immediate aftermath of a dreadful election, Varadkar would have feared the wrath of Fine Gael Councillors. But, right now, improving poll numbers and the perception that he is handling the COVID-19 crisis well may just see his slate of favoured Fine Gael candidates do ok.

But what about Micheál Martin?

Be in no doubt, there is real anger across Fianna Fáil – and much of that is directed at the leader. Activists are unhappy. Not all of them, but a sizeable number lot. Yesterday’s Sunday Business Post poll will not have helped the mood. Martin’s entourage will be relieved that the ballots were already in the post when those numbers emerged.

Martin’s councillors are not just dissatisfied with how the national general election campaign was run, but also with the behaviour of the Fianna Fáil leadership since then.

A sizeable number want to send a signal to Martin and to party HQ that they want change. One way to do this, in this age of no party gatherings or assemblies, is to establish which Seanad hopefuls the party leader wants to see elected…. and vote for their Fianna Fáil rivals. The perception that someone is close to or is favoured by leadership may prove a major drag factor this time.

Doubtless many Councillors and TDs will loyally do the leader’s bidding. It’s not exactly a chore when so many of the candidates are not just defeated TDs but well liked defeated first-time TDs. Indeed, only one of the defeated TDs running for the Seanad was a TD prior to 2016. But politics is a tough business and the anger felt within Fianna Fáil is going to mean collateral damage.

The first panel to be counted tomorrow is Cultural and Educational. It’s the smallest one with just five seats. Fianna Fáil has the votes to win two seats out of the five, but there are six Fianna Fáil candidates. Which of the six make it will be very telling

Will any of this influence Micheál Martin? Probably not.

Despite the advice of many loyal and sincere Fianna Fáil-ers inside and outside of Leinster House, Martin still stubbornly sets his face against the idea of a national government. Instead he presses ahead with his preferred option of an FF/FG/Green (or Labour)/Ind government with a fervour he never mustered in the campaign debates.

Almost two months after the general election and on the eve of a Seanad count it is still sadly clear that neither Martin nor his attendants have yet studied why they did so badly in the election. If they have, then they are showing no signs of it.

While the Covid-19 crisis will have shredded all the plans and promises made in GE2020, Martin’s Fianna Fáil still needs to grasp why so many voters who had looked like they were prepared to back Fianna Fáil at the outset of the campaign, decided during it to go the other direction. It also needs to examine why what it has been doing since the campaign is only serving to worse that situation.

The notion that Martin and Co can put all this right when they are safely embedded in Government with Fine Gael is beyond naïve.

Almost as naïve as thinking that a government with so many different parts, factions and antagonisms will hold together for the time Varadkar needs to complete his first rotation as Taoiseach and Martin gets his go… assuming, of course, that Martin can stay on long enough as Fianna Fáil leader to let that happen.


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