So after months of planning and campaigning it’s all over. Now we have to wait to see what our politicians can offer the people in the form of a Government to reflect what it is that the electorate said in General Election 2016; an election which will doubtless go down in history as something of an upheaval and which may still result in the end of Civil War politics if Fianna Fail and Fine Gael actually bite the bullet and cooperate. Remember all is possible if it’s “for the good of the country”.
As the granddaughter of a veteran of the War of Independence I have always voted, unless I am not in the country. I believe that we have no right to moan and complain if we put ourselves outside of the democratic process. I have always had an interest in politics and current affairs. But this was the first election where through my work and also through my involvement in the campaign of Independent candidate Carol Hunt, I really got up close and personal with the entire process and it was truly both fascinating and inspirational.
My initial reaction to being involved in campaigning for a candidate was that the entire system we use here in Ireland is so old fashioned. I had imagined that we would be using more technology – social media especially and that we wouldn’t really be bothering with the actual knocking on people’s doors which I thought of an almost an invasion of privacy. But no, Irish politics is driven by personal contact and the act of actually presenting the candidate at the doorstep and asking for votes. The forests of posters which I have often decried as being ridiculous are apparently vital for visibility; a fact that proved itself to be true as many people I canvassed said “oh I have seen her posters and wondered who she was”. We did use social media too – but very much an add on to the traditional methods.
The actual process of voting is also charmingly old fashioned here. With the carousel of booths and the pencil with which to mark your choices. And of course we use the mad system of proportional representation which is best summed up as “well if you can’t have her/him who would be your next best choice” and repeat as many times as there are candidates or not. Dropping into my polling station reminded of what it used be like when I went to Mass, greeting neighbours and friends and being very aware of community. I like that.
But it was visiting the count centre on Saturday that was the most fascinating. The Dun Laoghaire count, like many around the country, took place in a Sports Hall, that of Loughlinstown Leisure Centre. The action all takes place behind a cordon, butted up against the tables at which the staff work on checking ballots and sorting them. Leaning in over the barriers, keeping an eagle eye on what is happening are the ‘tallymen and women’ with clipboards and wearing expressions of rapt concentration with a hint of the ecstasy – they have waited five long years for this day. Candidates teams also huddle over the barrier like cows over a gate watching what is unfolding and wearing their candidate’s supporter sticker on their back so they can be easily identified from the rear! It’s all very unique and possibly very Irish.
The media are huddled at another bank of tables juggling laptops, phones and microphones as they write copy, live blog, live stream on periscope and upload photos. RTE have erected a scaffold with cameras and lighting so they can conduct interviews with the candidates and also feed the announcements as they happen back to the mother ship in Donnybrook.
The vibe is generally laid back but is punctuated with excitement as the day wears on and counts are announced and candidates finally deemed elected. Then the candidates begin to arrive at the centre which also causes ripples of excitement as the media rush to capture their arrival and get interviews lined up.
Our system is madly complicated. It’s like one of those maths problems you struggled with at school (well I did), “if Mary gets 30% of the first count and no transfers and 10 % of the second count and there’s an R in the month, what did Mrs O Leary have for breakfast”. The numbers game didn’t really capture my imagination. But what did was the fact that I was watching my community speaking. Each voter who made their seemingly little individual decisions about who they felt should play a part in the running of our country become part of the community voice that finally leads to the election of candidates. Democracy in action is a cliché but it is precious and beautiful.
And although the result in Dun Laoghaire did not reflect how I voted I accept that it is the voice of my community. It will be fascinating to see what unfolds next. As a country we have delivered a most interesting result.