Ireland’s Election Explained

For the overseas audience, I should explain why our vote continues late into the night, through what appear to be endless recounts. Our system is called ‘Single Transferable Vote’, which means we only have a single vote between all of us. So we have to fight over it.

OK, I’ll be serious. We have a vote each. But rather than just give it to one candidate, we list the buggers in an order of preference. The count is actually a (fairly) simple mathematical game that transfers a vote from one to another until it settles into a comfortable position. The idea is that if you can’t have your first-preference candidate you may get your second – etc.

The system requires multiple-seat constituencies to work (you’ll see why later), the norm is three to five seats. Votes are checked for validity and counted, and the total number of valid votes is divided by the number of seats in the constituency. So say there are 50,000 valid votes cast in a 5-seat constituency, that gives 10,000. You need one more vote than that to “reach quota” and be elected.

The votes are then sorted into piles according to the first preference (or “number 1”) – which is the state of play shown here below, for the current election and the previous one:

First Prefs Graphic © Dave Fahy,
© Dave Fahy,

Quite a change, eh?

As you see, Fianna Fáil did not get a majority of first preference votes in a single constituency this time. If we used a simple First-Past-The-Post voting system here, they would win no seats at all. Before you say it’s a shame that we don’t then, I should point out that if we did use FPTP, Fianna Fáil would have won every previous election before today.

Every. Single. One.

Under our more scrupulous STV system, their percentage of the seats will be fairly close to their actual percentage of the vote. (About 17%, the way it looks at the moment.) The system is as fair as it’s possible to be in this respect.

If none of the candidates makes the quota on their first preference votes, the next move is the elimination (or ‘exclusion’) of the lowest-polling candidate. The votes in their pile are transferred to whoever is listed as the next preference. (Each vote is a list, remember). If after this redistribution someone reaches the quota, they’re elected. If no one does, the next-lowest candidate is eliminated, and so on.

(In practice, several of the lowest-polling candidates’ piles will often be redistributed at once.)

So what happens when a candidate is elected? Naturally, they almost always get more than the quota on the count that elects them, and the extra vote is called the “surplus”. Say the quota was ten thousand and a candidate has eleven thousand votes. They have a ten percent surplus, so ten percent of their votes are chosen randomly and distributed to the candidate listed as the next preference.

(The random part introduces a slight approximation, but it’s precise enough with large numbers.)

If the surplus doesn’t elect someone else they go back to eliminating people again. And so on until all the seats are filled. It’s somewhat baroque but hey, it’s fair – and it’s fantastically dramatic to watch.

Its disadvantage? Multi-seat constituencies mean local representatives are in competition with each other – not just at elections, but all the time. Even when they’re members of the same party. That makes politics… different. More on this some other time.

Ming The Merciless Seizes Power

Ah, thank you RTÉ for putting up the figures from the last two counts you missed in Galway West. Fortunately, nothing there has overturned my predictions. Connolly has moved into fifth place, but it is by no means over. FG still need more than they have for two seats, Connolly now wants a round 4,600. A tall order, but I think SF will have it for her.

I realise that I’m dissolving into Irish electoralese here. Will put up a glossary later. Anyway, it looks as if the Galway West count is going to shut down for the night now – still with no one elected. I think this is very poor form, and they should keep going all night for our entertainment. As I said to my girlfriend earlier, this is the only reality television.

Still, sleep also has its merits. I’ve been watching, reading and typing non-stop for hours now.

Other fun in the West – Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan (Independent) has been elected for Roscommon / South Leitrim.

Ming, because he ran as a legalise cannabis campaigner some years ago under the name Ming the Merciless – complete with shaved head and mandarin moustaches. Now he has finally gained power, and can proceed to destroy the Earth legalise weed be a frustrated backbencher. Unless of course he pulls of a sort of anti-Tony Gregory and supports a minority FG government in return for smoky liberation.

Open fire. Alllll weapons!

Yeah, I think I am getting a bit light-headed.


Catherine Connolly To Get Galway West

Or so I reckon…

I got the second count figures off Twitter before RTÉ, incidentally. I guess that’s pretty representative of what’s happening in the Irish news media.

Still nobody elected! (Despite what John Bowman seemed to think…) Four candidates were eliminated – three no-hope protest independents, and a man who might well have been elected this time had his party not been in government: former mayor Niall Ó Brolcháin (Gr). Their votes went more to Connolly than anyone else, but the end result is that she still lies in that uncomfortable sixth place in a five-seat constituency – though by only 93 votes.

Come on Catherine. Come on, I’ve a fiver on ya.

(Not really. I leave gambling to the banking industry.)

But to elect both Brian Walsh and Fidelma Healy Eames, Fine Gael need a further 10,566 votes (more than a whole quota, though that’s not really relevant). Catherine Connolly needs just 5,127.

There are two other FG candidates now bound to be excluded, and they have – at the moment – 8,266 between them, so they alone can’t elect both their colleagues. The other independents, Sinn Féin, and Fianna Fáil have about 14,000 votes between them – none of which can be expected to transfer heavily FG’s way.

I think Connolly is in.

Historic, No Other Word For It

“Fianna Fáil will come back” – Micheál Martin.

Really, can you not take a hint?

It may come as a shock to overseas readers, but Fianna Fáil has, since its inception, always been the biggest party in the Irish parliament. Always. Until today.

Now they have fallen to second place, for the first time ever behind Fine Gael. This would have been unthinkable in almost any previous election.

And now they have fallen into third place, behind Labour. That was just straight unthinkable. No way could that have happened ever. But they managed it.

It’s just a pity that they had to destroy the country in the process.

And they are still falling. The way things are going, there may be more non-party representatives than FF in the next Dáil.

Current Party Standings

Incidentally, I must apologise for the lack of cartoons in these posts. I’m pretty much typing or reading all the time so I’m not really getting much of a chance. Will attempt to do one with my elbow.

Micheál Martin was elected in Cork, on the first count. With only 41 left over though, he won’t be bringing in a colleague. With four seats left, 2 FG and 2 to Labour looks most likely. RTÉ television have decided what what he has to say is more important than the actual vote or anything, so I had to get the (extraordinary) news about my own constituency from the radio. Finally though they did replace Martin’s face.

With Brian Cowen’s.

Let’s refresh our minds by glancing at the current standing of the parties:

FG 19, Lab 12, Others 7, SF 5, FF 3.


West Shows The Way

Labour top poll! Contrary to expectations, FF’s Ó Cuív didn’t win the first count in Galway West. Labour’s Derek Nolan took the yellow jersey. It’s basically impossible for him not to be elected now.

The question is whether it is possible for both socialists to make it in. My own vote is currently resting with Catherine Connolly, who has just under half a quota. Noel Grealish (XPD) did well on the first count, so he seems secure. It looks very much therefore that the fifth seat in Galway West will be a fight between Connolly and a second Fine Gaeler – and at the moment there are two FG candidates (just) ahead of her.

As the other independents are eliminated, their votes will tend to go towards Connolly. The third FG candidate’s will obviously go mainly to FGs. Which will FF votes go to? That’s anyone’s guess.

I think Connolly can do it, but… We’re going to be up all night, people.

Nearby in Mayo meanwhile, two FG candidates – one the party leader Enda Kenny – have been elected on the first count. That’s extraordinary. It seems certain they will win four out of five of that constituency’s seats.

Brian Lenihan, By The Skin Of His Neck

Does anyone believe that Brian Lenihan would have survived this election if he hadn’t turned his back on Brian Cowen?

His move against his leader would, at another time, have led to swift political termination. Fianna Fáil stands for nothing if not loyalty. (Actually, Fianna Fáil had come to stand for pretty much nothing except loyalty.) Yet now it seems likely that the only remaining FF representative in Dublin, the sole survivor of the Lenihan/O’Rourke dynasty, will be the one who turned on his leader.

Wait a while. Micheál Martin is wounded now by these election results – fatally so, I would imagine. How long before Lenihan attempts to reclaim the party for himself and his dynasty?

FF’s only TD in Dublin. I have to say that out loud. That still isn’t conceivable, even though it’s actually happening.

Under Bertie Ahern, FF attempted to portray itself as a party of the working class. Ahern even called himself “the last socialist”, though the claim was met with a mixture of laughter and blank incomprehension. It’s interesting though that once he went, that whole costume was sloughed off – as if Bertie was the only credible working-class Dubliner in the whole party.

Well now he is.