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What have we learned from the 2019 local and European elections?

I spent much of last weekend in bed, recovering from a cold, reading books and enjoying the slow resolution of the local and European elections. As a friend said at the time, peak Clare. 

I love elections. Having John Bowman on the telly with his handwritten calculations and his glasses and his unabashed nerdiness is always a joy. Readers outside of Ireland might be surprised to realise that we still have analog elections. Everything is done by hand. The boxes are opened in unison at 9am on count day, before being sorted and tallied. There’s a poetry to the ebb and flow of the count, the vagaries of PR STV* means that every vote counts usually more than once. Voters select candidates in order of preference from the candidate you prefer the most to the least, thereby spreading your preferences across a number of candidates and parties. This leads to many quirks and contradictions as the count progresses. At the time of writing, it’s 10 days after voting day and they’re STILL counting in Ireland South. Spare a thought for count staff there who have to contend with a 2 foot long ballot paper. Putin could never hope to hack our elections when we’re still using the aul peann luaidhe.**

Election coverage is one of the few times I watch RTÉ though I was shocked at how frequently female panellists were interrupted, spoken over and ignored. I flicked it on a few times during the day, but eventually had to abandon it.

The exit poll, which set the media narrative for the first few days, proved to be quite inaccurate. I was chatting with a friend (& subscriber - hey WIlliam! :) who pointed out two potential reasons for the skewed poll: 

  1. The exit pollsters stood outside the gates of many polling stations, which meant that they spoke to a disproportionate % of voters who went to the polling station by foot compared to those who got in their cars and drove away without meeting the pollsters

  2. People who came to the polling station with their children probably said they’d voted green, regardless of what they chose in the privacy of the voting booth. There was lots of anecdotal evidence of children and teenagers pressuring their elders to vote green, and with small sample sizes, it doesn’t take much to skew a poll. 

Fianna Fail (FF) called for a review of the exit poll which made me laugh. Seems to me that the more striking problem is that people are too sheepish to admit to voting for the party. FF might also want to take a look at Midlands-North West where their two candidates got just 9% of first preference votes.

It was the Greens’ day. Their vaulting outside the modest expectations will be remembered as the story of the election though as Pat Leahy has pointed it, it can hardly be considered a ‘surge’ when 9 out of 10 voters didn’t give them a first preference. They ended up with 49 local seats (they wanted to double their local seats and instead quadrupled them) and one European seat. (Maybe 2 if they get the bounce of the ball in Ireland South.)

The most disappointing, but perhaps not unsurprising, result was Peter Casey outpolling The Green’s Saoirse McHugh. Casey is best known for his disparaging remarks about travellers. He’s an immigrant (Casey is tax resident in the US) who sees no problem in criticising immigrants who come to Ireland. He won 9.5% of the vote, about 56,000 first preference votes. It’s a significant drop on the the 23% he won in the presidential election. That performance was a shock to pundits, though maybe it shouldn’t have been. Ireland is not immune to the populist movements that have been sweeping through western democracies. 

I’m always interested in the millennial vote. 42% of 18-24s and 29% of 25-34s voted for The Green’s Ciaran Cuffe in Dublin, while Fianna Fail’s Barry Andrews got just 2% of the youth vote. The Greens also ran the highest % of women in the locals, with 43% of candidates being female. Unsurprisingly, FF were the worst. Just 20% of their local election candidates were women. 

Three of Lemass’s great grandchildren ran for election. Both Hannah Lemass and Cathal Haughey lost, though Rory O’Connor who smartly ran as an independent won a seat in Bray West. The FF candidate in the race won just 350 votes, so the decision to run as an independent was likely decisive. The Healy-Rae dynasty continues to reign in Kerry so we’re unlikely to see the end of political seats being passed on like family heirlooms anytime soon.

Fianna Fail will feel encouraged by the results, especially in the so-called ‘working class’ parts of Dublin. They’ve made steady progress since the 2011 election when Brian Lenihan won the party’s only seat in Dublin, though they lost it in a by-election shortly after his death.

There was a narrative knocking around that that Leo Varadkar could be an electoral accelerant for Fine Gael (FG). That hasn’t proved accurate. Neither can FG claim to be fiscally responsible, given the scandals around the children’s hospital and the roll-out of rural broadband

FG and FF used to dominate Irish elections with 80-85% of the vote between them. FF got almost 70% in the 2007 election.

What were we thinking?

These days, FF and FG together achieve about 50% of the vote. Though hopefully, that will continue to decline. The locals have historically been the better predictor in terms of general election results. There’s likely to be very little between the big two (FF and FG), and the green/red/rainbow group of others will probably decide the next government. 
A mention too for the divorce referendum which passed with 82% in favour of reducing the period of time that couples are required to live apart before a divorce could be granted. Geoffrey Shannon, the UN special rapporteur on child protection, was on TV saying that the change would have a significant role to play in reducing the trauma children experience as a result of marriage breakdown. Ireland’s last referendum on divorce was a bitterly contested fight in 1995. 50.3% favoured the introduction of divorce. The margin of victory was just 9,114 votes out of 1.62 million votes cast. 

As one of the many thousands of children traumatised by Ireland’s regressive, patriarchal society, I’m heartened to see things change. As Josepha Madigan said, the result is evidence of the electorate’s ‘kindness and understanding’ though one wonders where that ‘kindness and understanding’ was 24 years ago. I was struck too at the gender difference in the exit poll, with more women (91%) than men (85%) favouring reform. 

If you love a good poll as much as I do, the full RTÉ exit poll is here.

The Irish Times has the full breakdown of the results.

*Proportional representation by single transferable vote
** which means pencil in Irish.

P.S. As an aside, I don’t think we talk enough about how difficult it would be to vote if English was not your first language or if you have challenges with literacy. There were 3 ballot papers this time, 4 in Cork, Waterford and Limerick where they also voted on having directly elected mayors. They’re long, often with lines in both English and Irish. I’d done my research and followed the campaign with my usual nerdy focus, but it took me a few minutes to find my bearings among the long pieces of paper and cast my vote appropriately. You can ask for assistance if you need it, but the act of voting can still be a daunting process.  

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