Sitting as an Independent in the Seanad

Sean Melly, one of my respected rivals for the Seanad, has made two appearances in the Irish Times recently. One is an attack on me and three of the candidates running for the NUI panel. The attack is on the basis that we are all associated with Fine Gael, in different ways, and hence unable to serve as ‘independent’ candidates. This is reported by Miriam Lord, under the heading ‘Seanad university seats and a different independence‘. Lord, one of our more acute journalists, writes ‘Melly, who is an independent Independent, is deeply unimpressed. “Candidates need to be honest and political parties should not compromise the integrity of the Seanad,” he says. “The independence of the Upper House must be maintained and its original function rescued and preserved.”’

I agree, though I think reform, rather than restoration, is required. The Seanad does pretty much what Fianna Fail designed it to do – as little as possible. This is no longer acceptable.

I am a Fine Gael member, though not exactly a well-hidden one, see my Twitter account, Facebook Page, or my LinkedIn profile, if you doubt this. It seems odd to suggest that aspiring politicians ought not be interested in politics, and one legitimate way of showing this is to be a member of a party. Being a senator is a political position and having some experience of politics might well be an asset. Certainly, knowing how to work with politicians, and civil servants is essential, if you hope to get anything done.

So why am I  member of Fine Gael, rather than any other party? I am, like most Irish people, fairly centrist. I believe that States have a big role in providing good quality services, and high levels of personal protection to all residents. These include, health care, education, transport, housing, and direct protection (Gardaí etc.). This has to be paid for. I support progressive taxes, where people, like me, on high incomes pay much more than those on lower incomes. I believe that social solidarity matters, and that we need a more equal, and more just society. Fine Gael is not a perfect party, nor are our leadership perfect, but, for me, it tries to go in the right direction.

I agree with Sean that it is important for the Seanad to build on the independence of its members. I do not think that it would help me to work effectively in the Seanad, were I to join a parliamentary party, and I believe it might hinder me. If you know me personally, you may think that I am not well suited to taking a party whip!

There are more impediments to independence than party membership. I have fully declared all my personal and family financial interests, as well as my values, and my religious, and political views. including my latest P60, and my SIPO declarations. Anyone who wishes may inspect these, and draw whatever conclusions you wish.

I mentioned that Sean had appeared twice in the Irish Times recently. The second time was a story here, on February 15th of this year, which I suggest you read, and then consider what else independence might mean, and what else might affect the independence of a politician.

Tallying in Irish general elections

The media occasionally give the idea that tallymen (and the media always write about tallymen) are a breed apart, able to look at  a box of votes and tell you how many number 1’s are in it for each candidate While this would be a useful skill, it is entirely mythical. Tallys, or tally marks, are just an old system of counting. They have been in use, probably, for many millennia. In the vote counts in Irish election, the ‘tally’ is a running total of the votes cast in each ballot box. These are collected by volunteers whose legal role is to check the validity of the ballots.

Back up a step. When you vote in Ireland, you put your ballot paper into a box. Each box covers a certain area on the ground, maybe one housing estate, a few streets, several townlands, or even an entire village. The very first step in a count, is to take that box, inspect the seal, and open it, pouring the ballot papers onto a table. The papers are then removed one-by-one from the pile, placed face upwards on the table, and the total number of votes in that box is counted.

When they are placed face up on the table, the tally people look at each ballot to check two things. Is it a valid ballot, and for whom was the first preference vote cast on that ballot? Typically the tally people have a sheet, laid out in the same order as the ballot paper, with a table printed on it. A tally (or to be exact, a tally mark, a vertical stroke) is put beside the name of the candidate who got that vote. At the end of the process, hopefully, there is one tally for every vote in the box, and you know, quite accurately, where the first preference votes have gone from that box. Pooling these counts together for a constituency gives the tally for that constituency. These are accurate estimates of the first preference votes.

Finally, the count staff bundle the votes, usually into piles of 100 votes, held together with rubber bands. Then the bundles of votes from different boxes are mixed, and the count proper begins.

All of this has two effects, first there is a public, widely reported preliminary count. Second many kinds of wholesale ballot rigging become impossible or very very difficult. Irish elections are not perfect, but they are democratic, and the count reflects, very accurately indeed, how the Irish people have chosen to vote.