Sunday 26 January 2020

Maeve Sheehan: Not only dull as ditchwater – but wrong result as well

The real excitement on Government's Seanad campaign will come later when the dust settles, writes Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

IT was probably one of the dullest referendum campaigns in recent history. Unsurprisingly, the returning officer for Dublin County struggled to show a bit of excitement yesterday.

There were no dramas, no political histrionics and, other than rare sightings of Fine Gael TDs in Dublin Castle, barely an anecdote to be found.

"It's been really, really boring," John Fitzpatrick admitted to the Sunday Independent yesterday.

Mr Fitzpatrick said he could see victory for the No vote soon after counting started yesterday morning, which sapped much of the drama from the day. But he consoled himself with the thought of getting home early, thanks to the low turnout, which means less votes to be counted.

"It has been fairly quick," he said. "We'll be out of here by 5pm!"

The real excitement of the Government's campaign to abolish the Seanad will come later when the dust settles on the public's decision to reject it. But yesterday, Fine Gael took its time to admit that defeat was on the cards.

Ironically, it was a government TD who first predicted the bad news for the Coalition.

Kevin Humphries, the Labour TD, was the first to get the message. The TD for Dublin South East – a veteran tallyman – was up early counting the first ballots at the RDS count centre.

The Ringsend box was out. By 9.15am, he had seen enough to take the plunge and call it: "Ringsend says No," he tweeted.

A few minutes later: "Pearse Street boxes showing a No."

And after a few more minutes: "Looks like a No in Dublin Central as well."

His phone started hopping. Not that he was berated by party colleagues for giving up the ghost on the Government's campaign to abolish the Seanad. According to Humphries, it was more that they couldn't get over him putting his neck on the line.

"I was a bit on the brave side calling it nationally. But I was confident enough from what I had seen that it was going to be a No vote," he said. "I saw fairly clearly that it would fail."

From 9.30am, over the next few hours, predictions of a No vote came tumbling in, based on tallies in the greater Dublin area, while rural areas seemed to suggest a narrow Yes.

It took a few hours for Humphries' colleagues in Fine Gael to catch up with his way of thinking. Just what part of No don't you understand? crowed one Fianna Fail wag as government TDs kept digging away in the mounting pile of No votes, scavenging scraps of hope.

But by 2.30pm Leo Varadkar, the Fine Gael Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, was ready to give up the ghost.

He told Bryan Dobson on RTE television: "What it's looking like to me is there is a No vote in the greater Dublin area and a marginal Yes vote in the rest of the country but probably not enough to counter the No vote in Dublin, so probably around 52 per cent to 53 per cent."

'It's been a really, really boring referendum campaign . . . but the count has been fairly quick, so at least we'll be out of here by 5pm!'

"But we always knew it was going to be close," he swiftly added, just to temper the thought that Fine Gael had gotten it entirely wrong.

The Fianna Fail TD, Niall Collins, however, said he detected the No vote as far back as the Ploughing Championships.

"I am in touch with people and I'm on the ground. I felt even with 10 days to go there was a rejection of the populist approach taken by the Government," he said.

Mr Collins was heading off to the Fianna Fail president's dinner, which by happy coincidence was held in the Burlington last night. But there would be no political crowing.

To one former member of Fianna Fail, it was the first time in years that the party had "faced the electorate and got it right".

But when the hangover clears, there will be more important things to be deciphered from yesterday's vote.

Humphries said: "There is a message in it. But I think it is too early to determine what it is."

Sunday Independent

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