Sharpen the Knives: Inside the RDS as the votes are counted

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“Invigilators, papers please”. These are the words that mark the start of every UCD Christmas and summer exam and they will echo around the massive hall of the RDS again in little over two months’ time.

While UCD’s students can rest assured that no matter how harrowing their ordeal is the pain will not be prolonged for more than two hours there was no such assurance for the assembled politicians, journalists and counters on Saturday morning in the RDS when the rustling of papers marked the start of the vote counting for the 2016 general election.

The exit polls conducted by RTE and The Irish Times surely were being discussed and dissected by those present and there was a feeling of nervous anticipation around the hall as counting began.

The tallymen quickly busied themselves noting down the distribution of preferences. Many were seasoned practitioners, some volunteered to experience the thrill of the day and one woman defied the latter stages of pregnancy to join the Labour team tallying for Kevin Humphreys. They quickly saw that Labour would not repeat its successes of 2011.

Eric Byrne was the party’s first casualty, the 2011 poll-topper conceding he would not be re-elected in Dublin South Central as early as mid-morning. He was soon joined by party colleague Joe Costello, first elected in Dublin Central in 1992 – he found himself consoling his teary-eyed family and friends. Kevin Humphreys similarly put on a brave face, but when the Dublin Bay South count was suspended for the night he was finally overcome with weariness as he admitted he was unsure whether he would retain his seat – he would ultimately miss out narrowly.

IMAG0298Labour were not the only party to experience the loss of a seat. Renua leader Lucinda Creighton created a stir when she arrived at the count centre on Saturday afternoon. She was quickly engulfed by a media scrum as some heckles were hurled her direction with one man shouting “Donald Trump right wing”. If a figure can look isolated in the middle of a crowd, then Creighton did then. She had secured over 4,000 first preference votes but transferred remarkably poorly and lost her seat.

Mary Lou McDonald’s entrance was a marked contrast to that of Creighton’s. The large Sinn Féin support that had assembled in the RDS gave her a rapturous welcome as she arrived to claim her Dublin Central seat. She was soon greeted by colleague Aengus Ó Snodaigh who was well on his way to retaining his seat in Dublin South Central. He had been heavily favoured to do so but insisted to The City that it was still a “relief” and that you can “never be confident in politics”. He admitted that he had hoped his party’s gains would have been greater but welcomed the election result as a sign the electorate were willing to move away from civil war dominated politics.

This sentiment was shared by Róisín Shortall – joint leader of the Social Democrats. She described her party’s performance as  “great start” to a “long term project”. The Social Democrats may yet play a prominent role in Irish politics in the coming years but despite Shortall’s words there must have been some disappointment that the party was unable to add to the three seats already held by the joint party leaders.

As the day progressed news continue to filter through to the RDS on Fine Gael’s disappointing results. In the evening a large crowd surrounded a screen to watch Alan Shatter miss out on a seat in Dublin Rathdown. “Shatter Shattered” quipped one gleeful Sinn Féin activist.

In a marked contrast to results elsewhere around the country, Fine Gael had a reasonable day in the RDS constituencies. Eoghan Murphy and Kate O’Connell secured seats in Dublin Bay South and Richard Bruton arrived to note his strong position in Dublin Bay North. However, there were more than a few rumblings of disquiet from the party’s activists in the count centre, unhappy with the campaign and thoughts of what could have been had there been a November election.

As the sky outside darkened and the hours since the count had started entered double digits, the cheers inside the hall grew more thunderous. Paschal Donohoe punched the air as he was lifted aloft when the count officer announced he had saved his seat. He was joined in Dublin Central by Independent Maureen O’Sullivan who had staged a stunning resurgence on transfers to take the last seat on offer, to the delight of her team.

NewCMartinGreenTD
Newly elected Catherine Martin of the Green Party

The loudest cheer of the day went to the Green Party’s Catherine Martin. A host of familiar faces – John Gormley and Ciarán Cuffe arrived in anticipation – had assembled to welcome her to the RDS and she was warmly embraced by party leader Eamon Ryan, who himself was being catapulted up the Dublin Bay South standing thanks to strong transfer numbers. He would eventually be one of the first elected, a revival for the party that had been thought wiped out in 2011.

As Saturday night became Sunday morning the counting in most of the constituencies was suspended until a more reasonable hour. Not so for the candidates and counters of Dublin South Central, who continued to argue over votes well past 1am with Catherine Ardagh posed to call for a recount or recheck in the hope she could continue Fianna Fáil’s resurgence in Dublin.

Outside the RDS election posters were already being taken down – for how long remains unclear. The full  consequences of the 2016 general election are still to be determined and there is no timeline for when a new government will form or indeed what form it will take. Over the previous 16 hours, Irish democracy was in clear evidence. The people had spoken: it is just not entirely clear what they said.

by FERGUS CARROLL

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