Farm Ireland

Thursday 22 March 2018

Opinion: Winter elections pose problems for politicians vying for rural support


Bertie Aherne
Bertie Aherne
John Downing

John Downing

We have only had one Christmas general election ever in Ireland, and it actually pre-dated the foundation of the modern state.

On December 14, 1918, the Irish nation was called to the polls for a very different election which would shape the political and social structures of the country all through the 20th century.

Politicians dislike winter elections. Bertie Ahern, who had the skill and luck to win a rare three in a row in 1997, 2002 and 2007, ensured the latter two contests he could call took place in May.

Weather can never be guaranteed in Ireland but there is a sporting chance that summer will not produce Arctic hail and gales. Between early April and end of October there is a good belt of evening daylight to allow the canvassers to pound their beat.

Early winter darkness is compounded by rural communities' fear of crime, which makes farms and homesteads hard to access for canvassers.

More and more homes have "no junk mail" tags on their letterboxes, prohibiting candidates dropping in a leaflet with the familiar scrawled message: "Called and was disappointed to miss you."

Scanning the long list of elections past, we see that we have had a contest in every single month of the year. This writer can recall the bitter cold of chaotic elections in November and February 1982, and especially the bitter cold of an election count in late February 1987.

The 1992 'Spring tide' actually happened in November of that year - 25 years ago last Sunday.

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Circumstances conspired to foist the last two general elections upon us in late February, which at least had the benefit of a small increase in available canvass daylight.

But if that election balloon goes up today or tomorrow, we are looking at a general election on December 19, 20 or 21. The issue may be decided by the time you read this.

But it is clear that the confidence has gone from the so-called Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil 'Confidence & Supply Agreement' which underpinned this minority coalition.

So, if we do not have a snap election soon, we'll have it in the first quarter of 2018.

In December 1918 Ireland was particularly rural and dependent on farming economically. That election, little more than a month after the end of the horrific slaughter of World War I, was the dawn of real Irish democracy.

Every man over 21 was given a vote, as was every woman over 30, who was a householder, or married to a householder. The previous election in 1910 had 698,000 voters but by 1918 the Irish electorate was 1.9 million people.

The once mighty Irish Party was swept aside as it was reduced to just six seats, its problems seriously compounded by the first-past-the-post system.

The soon-to-be split Sinn Féin won 73 seats and opted to set up the First Dáil in January 1919, boycotting Westminster.

But the northern counties were largely a blank, with the Unionists taking the vast bulk of the seats there. The die was sadly cast for partition.

A century on, Ireland is vastly different. But politically farming and rural communities generally can still pack a punch.

John Downing is an Irish Independent political correspondent

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