Monday 26 September 2016

After all the time, effort and money spent, this Seanad could be over before it begins

Niamh Gallagher

Published 27/04/2016 | 02:30

'The days of the Seanad as a retirement home for failed politicians appear to be over, if this cluster of candidates is anything to go by.'
'The days of the Seanad as a retirement home for failed politicians appear to be over, if this cluster of candidates is anything to go by.'

As poring over the Dáil numbers becomes boring even for the hard-core political nerds, at least there is something else to keep us going: the Seanad election.

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The unprecedented number of candidates from a rich and diverse set of backgrounds - NGOs, politics, student government, the diaspora, business, community and more - suggests that the institution the previous government sought to abolish holds huge appeal to a mix of people seeking a voice in public life, but who are perhaps not enamoured by the local and party politics required to get elected to the Dáil.

The days of the Seanad as a retirement home for failed politicians appear to be over, if this cluster of candidates is anything to go by.

But the sad and strange thing about this Seanad is that it could be over almost before it has begun.

It is looking increasingly likely that - given the impasse over Irish Water - Enda Kenny will be forced to dissolve the Dáil and call an election. If it happens this week, as some are predicting, those elected to the Seanad may not even have a chance to take their seats.

Instead, another Seanad election will be called, to take place within 90 days of the dissolution of the Dáil, and the same candidates will be back to square one on their campaigns.

This is deeply disappointing, particularly when we look at the time, human effort and money invested.

There are 49 seats up for grabs, 43 through the vocational panels and six via the universities. The remaining 11 will be nominated by the Taoiseach, when and if we have one.

The panels - Culture and Education, Agriculture, Labour, Industry and Commerce, and Public Administration - each have a mix of candidates, put forward by national nominating bodies. The bodies include the Irish Cooperatives Association and Irish Grain and Feed Organisation, in the case of the Agricultural Panel. The make-up of these bodies is historic, random and almost impossible to explain rationally.

Other candidates are nominated to panels by Oireachtas members and are, for the most part, general election candidates who missed out, or former TDs and Senators.

This time around, between the nominating bodies and the Oireachtas sub-panels, 125 candidates are contesting 43 seats. Not bad odds, but made tougher by the nature of the small and specific electorate.

Some 1,167 outgoing Senators, sitting TDs and councillors can vote in the Seanad elections. The result is a stitch-up: whoever has the most seats between the current Dáil, Seanad and the local authorities will emerge strongest in the Seanad and they will dictate who will get elected.

It is not a perfect mathematical equation, but it is fairly predictable.

But despite this predictability, this is no ordinary election. For party candidates, internal rivalries reach fever pitch and transfers are key. Courting councillors is essential to emerge victorious; and those same councillors are wise to their power and hungry to wield it.

For the most part, panel candidates got into their cars two months ago and zig-zagged the country calling to councillors' homes or businesses, drinking tea with wives, talking football with husbands and playing with children or animals - whatever necessary to secure that vote. This election is a race - who gets to who first - and, within parties the true challenge is differentiating from your party opponent without generating too much bad blood. No mean task.

So, it's easier to run on the University panel, right? Well, maybe not. Here too, competition is fierce, but in a different way. Six seats to fill and 46 candidates, 30 contesting the NUI Panel and 16 on the Trinity Panel.

Graduates of the respective universities and their affiliates elect these senators, which means an electorate of about 160,000 (nearly 150 times the size of that for the other panels) - some 100,000 for NUI and over 50,000 for Trinity. Add to that the complication that lots of these people no longer live where they did at college, and thus where they registered, and inefficiency and confusion is widespread.

Consider the cost of all this. The State sends one official letter for each candidate to each voter. That is 46 candidates sending one letter each to 160,000 people (not all of whom live in Ireland). That is nearly 7.5 million pieces of literature in the post, costing about €5m, before ballots are even posted.

As well as literature, at this election social media suggests university candidates canvassed door-to-door, as well as relying on post and social media. Given the outdated nature of the register, the geographic spread of graduates and the slim chance of finding that magic combination - the right person, registered at the right address, who was at home to sign for their ballot and is at home at the time you call - means getting one vote is like finding a needle in a haystack.

A total of 171 candidates for 49 seats. It sounds easy, boring even. It is far from it.

The variety in this election shows the hunger to get into public life among interests far wider than the usual suspects.

But imagine, after all of that, that the 25th Seanad may be finished before it starts.

This must be one of the most bizarre elements of our electoral system, though as we reach the two-month mark and still no government perhaps there is little that will surprise us in politics.

Irish Independent

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