Voters at odds with bookies
Being a very cruel man, I've long been a fan of blood sports. And that's why this week's column will be devoted to the greatest of all Irish blood sports, the general election.
Because it is something of an irony that after spending so much time worrying about the fate of the hapless stag, terrorised and chased across the country by a vengeful, howling pack who give him no chance of escape, John Gormley and his Greens now face the same fate. Only a bit bloodier. And does the stag care? Not a bit.
It's not a coincidence that the two main topics of conversation in the Irish pub are sport and politics. They are intertwined in our consciousness. Irish politics seems like a game because given the minimal policy differences between our main parties the contest is all. And in five days we'll have 43 mini-championships with the added bonus that on occasion we all get to be the manager picking the team and the referee who gets to send serial offenders packing.
There are obvious resemblances between an election count and a big match. Play a tape of the noise that greets a goal and of that which erupts when the returning officer declares a candidate elected and you'd have a hard job telling the difference. And when the supporters of the successful candidate chair him around the count centre, he wears the same beatific expression as a footballer being hoisted on the shoulders of the faithful at the final whistle.
Perhaps these resemblances account for the intimate connection between the worlds of sport and politics in this country. A past Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, was one of the finest hurlers of all-time. And our next one, Enda Kenny, is the son of one of the finest footballers of all-time, Henry, who won one All-Ireland and six National Leagues at midfield with Mayo in the 1930s. Another party leader, Joe Higgins of the Socialist Party, is the brother of double All-Ireland winning Kerry footballer, the late and much lamented Liam Higgins.
Another Kingdom great, Jimmy Deenihan, will be standing for Fine Gael in Kerry North/West Limerick while his party colleague John O'Mahony, standing in Mayo, steered Galway to two All-Ireland titles as manager. In the 1973 All-Ireland under 21 football final, which Kerry won against Mayo, one of Deenihan's team-mates was current Kerry North Sinn Féin TD Martin Ferris. Ferris's marker? John O'Mahony. Labour's Jack Wall is a former chairman of Kildare County Board while independent TD Michael Lowry did the same job in Tipperary. And of course debutant candidate in Louth Gerry Adams will be best known to most people as the father of Gearóid Adams, an excellent wing-back for Antrim footballers in the 1990s.
Also running in Louth, for Fine Gael, is Peter Fitzpatrick who brought the county's football team so close to a first Leinster title in 53 years last summer. We know what's going to happen to him. He'll be just about to get elected on the final count when one of his opponents will run in and in full view of everyone, stuff a few hundred illegal votes into one of the ballot boxes. And when Peter complains, the officials will tell him there's nothing anyone can do about it.
The two finest Irish soccer players of all-time have also had an input into the election. John Giles appeared with Eamon Gilmore at the launch of Labour's sports policy while Dun Laoghaire independent candidate Victor Boyhan's election leaflet includes a message of support from Paul McGrath. Boyhan and McGrath grew up together in the Birds Nest care home in Dublin. And another local legend of the beautiful game, Brian Kerr, has joined Labour's Henry Upton on the campaign trail in Dublin South Central.
Rugby? Well, apparently IRFU headquarters last week took delivery of a wax voodoo doll of Eamon Ryan and a job lot of pins. Just joking, obviously Ryan's fall-out with the IRFU won't hurt him in the election. After all, Dublin South isn't rugby territory.
Perhaps the strongest proof that we regard the election as a form of sporting contest is the amount of betting that's been going on. You may think that this is an insult to the renowned dignity of the Irish democratic process. But if you do, patent that dignity detector quickly because it's obviously an extremely powerful one.
Back in 2007, Paddy Power laid €500,000 worth of election bets. As of Friday last this campaign's total stood at €400,000 and they expect to exceed that half million total by the time betting closes. The firm's biggest bet is from a punter who has wagered €10,000 at 1/50 on Fine Gael to win the most seats. No, it doesn't seem to make much sense to me either.
Betfair expect to have matched a million euro worth of bets by the time the campaign closes. And the firm's Barry Orr reckons that the betting markets have been ahead of the polls when it comes to detecting changes in support for the parties, commenting, "We saw a seismic shift for Fine Gael to form a single party government long before the polls put them at 38 per cent and our Betfair Predicts Seat Tracker had them at 72 seats for over a week before the latest poll was released."
Fine Gael's surge has been graphically demonstrated in the betting. Just two months ago, the party was 40/1 with Powers to win an overall majority, now it's 6/1. And the punter who in October had €60 at 25/1 on the party to govern as a minority administration looks a prescient soul now. Even more so was the punter who in October stuck €500 on Enda Kenny at 3/1 with Powers to be the next Taoiseach. He'd get odds of 1/66 for his money now. Betfair have seen the odds on a Fine Gael single-party government plummet from 99/1 to 4/1. And of the €22,665 they've matched on the next Taoiseach, all but €518 has gone on Kenny.
The betting news is not all that encouraging for the Greens or Sinn Féin. Boylesports have seen the odds on the former to win no seats at all move in from evens to 1/2, while the bets on Sinn Féin to win over 20 seats, which were notable at the start of the campaign, have completely dried up.
And the news from the bookies is genuinely terrifying for Fianna Fáil. At the time of writing, Boylesports had seen the odds on the party winning 20 seats or fewer come in from 10/3 to 6/4 after a flurry of €200 and €300 bets. The firm has seen individual TDs from the party drift alarmingly in price, Cyprian Brady going from 5/1 to 16/1, Barry Andrews from evens to 4/1 and Brian Lenihan from 1/5 to 4/11. Betfair report that five sitting Fianna Fáilers, Darragh O'Brien, Sean Haughey, Conor Lenihan, Charlie O'Connor and Peter Kelly have not attracted a red cent between them.
It's the constituency battles which have been attracting the real money with over half of the bets laid by Powers dealing with the campaign at local level. The firm stand to lose heavily if a couple of independent candidates come through. Kerry South independent Tom Fleming opened at 2/1 before ten bets amounting to €8,000 saw his odds slashed. He's now 1/3. At the moment, Powers face a payout of €20,000 should Fleming get in.
They'll be down €17,705 should Laois/Offaly independent candidate John Leahy spring a surprise. The Kilcormac-based councillor opened at 8/1 before 17 bets totalling €1,635 saw the odds cut to 5/1. Leon Blanche of Boylesports says that support for independent candidates has been one of the dominant trends of the campaign. They've taken three €500 bets on Leahy, two €1,000 bets on another Laois/Offaly independent, former Fianna Fáil man John Foley and a €1,500 bet on Mick Wallace who's been cut from 5/4 to 4/7 in Wexford. There's also been serious support for Luke Ming Flanagan in Roscommon/South Leitrim.
Yet the punters haven't been shy of backing the major parties either. Powers will be down at least ten grand should Fine Gael challenger Regina Doherty win in Meath East while they've seen, relatively, more cautious souls put €7,500 on Sean Sherlock at 1/10 in Cork East and €7,000 on Mary Coughlan at 1/6 in Donegal South West.
Of course these figures will change before election day, a case in point being the fluctuating fortunes of Richard Boyd Barrett in Dun Laoghaire, Betfair's busiest constituency. The People Before Profit man opened at 2/1 before €2,648 in wagers brought him into 2/5. Come Friday's discouraging opinion poll, however he was available at 9/10.
This flurry of political speculation has made political betting big business for the firms involved. Paddy Power have 60 betting markets and a website, electionbetting.com, which is available as an iphone web app (ask your children). Betfair have 38 markets and expect to add more in response to demand. Their site, electionpredict.com, features a highly entertaining election betting blog written by Ivan Yates, a man who apparently had something do with bookmaking at one stage.
Not all the markets are entirely serious. Powers offer the chance to bet on the winner of their 'Dáil darling' contest for the best looking female and male politician. At the moment Catherine Yore (Fine Gael, Meath West) and James Carroll (Fianna Fáil, Louth) are clear leaders in this category. Were I not a committed anti-sexist, I would note that Catherine Yore is gorgeous enough to make you forgive Meath for Hector, Joe Sheridan's goal and John Bruton's laugh. Twice over. I suppose James Carroll is alright too but for my money he doesn't quite have the raw brooding sexual magnetism of Martin Mansergh.
A market which really takes my fancy is that for the candidate who wins the least votes nationally. This coveted crown was won last time out by Seamus McCormack who polled a stunning 24 votes in Longford/Westmeath and obviously doesn't have many relations. This time round the joint favourites at 10/1 each are Bishop Michael Cox, the man who ordained Sinéad O'Connor to the priesthood, in Laois/Offaly and John Pluto Hyland, the owner of the Lucky Charms Spirited Renderings tattoo parlour on Dorset Street, in Dublin Central. Also figuring prominently are Mike Cubbard in Galway West, (I don't know why, he wood surely be a great addition to the cabinet) and Ben Nutty in Waterford, a man with perhaps the most appropriate name in the election given that he must have ben nutty to stand in the first place. It will be worth watching out for the winner of this one.
All in all, a fascinating contest. Or perhaps I'm just biased because the last election saw me win the biggest bet of my life. En route to put down some serious dosh on Fianna Fáil, who were 4/1 to win more than 75 seats at the time, I bumped into a well-known party figure and, though I'd never met him before, decided to ask him if I was doing the right thing. "Fire ahead," he said, "we have new polls out that show we're doing way better than that." And that's why I can't in all honesty wish Micheál Martin anything but the best of luck, in Cork South Central anyway.
Leaving my personal politics out of this, I'll also be cheering on Fine Gael's Frank Feighan in Roscommon-South Leitrim on the unimpeachable grounds that he used to drive myself and my brother around to play youth soccer with Boyle Celtic. But the candidate I would, as a sportsman, most like to see winning a seat is Peter Fitzpatrick. Because, let's face it, how much disappointment can one man be expected to stand?
And if that 11/10 on Fianna Fáil to win 25 seats or more is still available at Paddy Powers when you read this, wade in. I know I will. Happy voting. Let the schadenfreude begin.
Sunday Indo Sport