Saturday 29 November 2014

In politics, defeat is a mixture of personal loss, professional concern and, finally, relief

Published 24/05/2014 | 02:30

In 2007 Progressive Democrats sitting TD Liz O’Donnell (left) was defeated and lost her Dublin South seat. Right, Olivia Mitchell TD Photo: Gerry Mooney
In 2007 Progressive Democrats sitting TD Liz O’Donnell (left) was defeated and lost her Dublin South seat. Right, Olivia Mitchell TD Photo: Gerry Mooney

This weekend is a political game-changer. Government parties are braced to feel the white heat of public anger, while the Opposition will dine out on the same sentiment. The media loves all this reckoning and retribution. It is the political equivalent of an All-Ireland final in Croke Park.

As a candidate in five elections, I never relished the high drama of the count. I was uncomfortable with the protracted tedium of the tally and the vagaries and complexities of proportional representation, which can make for a white-knuckle ride for candidates.

The crash barriers in the count centres, over which tallymen and party supporters lean to get a good view of the mounds of ballot papers, are reminiscent of a cattle mart. All that victorious horsing around with overweight candidates being bounced awkwardly on shoulders was mortifying, and thankfully never happened to me.

The election, the pinnacle of which is the count, is a uniquely Irish bloodsport like coursing. Tickets to the inner sanctum of the count centres are highly sought-after by political insiders.

The first act is the opening of the boxes by officials, followed by the tossing out and bundling of papers credited to each candidate. Then each paper is carefully turned over and counted according to the preference of votes, with first preferences being the primary focus. But eagle-eyed tallymen note where No 2s and subsequent transfers are headed. This constitutes significant advance political intelligence, which, when analysed, can indicate the outcome of the election.

It remains a surprisingly paper- based manual and fallible system. The vagaries of vote distribution and sequencing of eliminations can be arbitrary. But a foray into electronic voting some years ago was so disastrous, unpopular and expensive, it is unlikely to be revisited. Who can forget the image of popular Fine Gael minister Nora Owen collapsing in shock when it was announced she had lost her seat? It was akin to a drive-by shooting live on TV, with her fellow candidates supporting her as she buckled.

No, the status quo, however outmoded, which gives time for candidates and parties to adjust expectations and accept unpalatable outcomes, is here to stay.

For a sitting TD, councillor or MEP to lose a seat is a very public and personal rejection. It is immediate – effectively an overnight redundancy. In my case, after the initial shock, mixed feelings emerged. Personal upset moves to concern for colleagues and party fortunes. But initial disappointment can quickly change to relief and acceptance of destiny. Savvy politicians are rarely totally surprised by losing. There will have been indicators during the campaign and coldness at the doors.

This time, on the basis of consistently doom-laden polls, government parties are prepared for the worst. In contrast, Sinn Fein and a diverse cohort of independents and socialists will prosper. Across the water, UKIP were on course to overtake the Labour and Conservative parties for the first time in a national poll. Protest politics is "all the rage "in both UK, and Ireland. Indeed, right across the European Union it will be a seismic day of pan-European reckoning, the first since the economic and financial crisis.

Hundreds of councillors in Ireland will be elected – many for the first time. It is a life-altering event and for some the beginning of a long career in politics. More women will be elected after decades of marginalisation.

But all eyes are on the expected Sinn Fein surge. The party's brand has withstood reminders of its unsavoury past, the electorate is living in the now. Like it or not, a simplistic message of protest and change resonates with the public. With Labour in Government and inextricably tied into Budget cuts and austerity measures, the field has been left open for a populist anti-establishment movement like Sinn Fein to hoover up disgruntled votes.

Last week, Robert Watt, the secretary general of the Department of Public Service and Reform, acknowledged the obstacle of "austerity fatigue" in continuing the recovery programme beyond what is politically palatable.

Whatever the verdict of the people, a good turnout is important. Some bizarrely spoiled their vote. I recall one comically-spoiled ballot paper scrawled "Feck the lot of yez."

However unfairly, the Government parties are being punished for doing what is necessary for our national recovery. But beyond that they have been incompetent on the justice and policing controversies. They have made ill-judged changes to medical card entitlement and squabbled over water. Ministers have allowed a cacophony of populist whingers to dominate the media over the campaign. As a team, their heads were down instead of locked confidently in battle.

For jaded candidates it's time for reflection. After weeks and months surrounded by people, win or lose, in politics, one is ultimately alone.

Irish Independent

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