Seanad 2020: The NUI Result

So another upper house university poll is in the books. It’s very much a case of as you were for the NUI, with the three incumbents re-elected, all with varying degrees of ease.

Ronan Mullen topped the poll and was elected on the first count. As the only out-and-out conservative running, this should come as a surprise to no-one. Michael McDowell followed only a short way behind, and this should also come as a surprise to no-one, owing to his legacy and name recognition. The only question mark was over the third seat, and I did get that wrong: I thought that Ruth Coppinger’s public profile could vault her past Alice-Mary Higgins, but Higgins polled very well, doubling her vote from 2016, and was never really in any danger of losing out from the moment the first count was announced.

For the rest, well Coppinger’s performance was good, but nowhere near good enough. Laura Harmon I sort of expected more from, but she did improve on her 2016 showing, so there may be a long game being played there. Michelle Healy ran an active campaign on social media that probably helped her. Rory Hearne upped his numbers in a respectable showing. Eva Dowling benefited from her party profile to get above 1’000 but might have expected more. Brendan Price says this is his last run, and getting to four figures isn’t a bad return. Everyone else was on three figure FPV, from Mick Finn in the low 900’s, to Eoin Delahunty on 130.

What does this result mean? Well, I have said it before and I’m sure that I will say it again at some point, but the NUI constituency is an entity that needs less also-rans and a more limited field of serious candidates. I think over half of the 2020 field went home without expenses. There are too many have-a-go candidates who are wasting their time and money, in the process of muddying the water and complicating the issue for others. When you have upwards of 15 liberal, progressive candidates running in a field of 19, a degree of frustration is apropos: think of how many random transfers, NTV’s and other slip-ups result when that happens, making a a coordinated “Vote Left, Transfer Left” approach between candidates all but impossible. I will appeal, to anyone who reads this who is considering a Seanad run in future, to reflect on whether your candidacy is worthwhile.

But I have come to realise that there is another issue. Much of the reaction I saw to yesterday’s result was naturally based around Ronan Mullen’s poll-topping performance, which engendered disappointment, outrage and frustration in different measures. But when you are the only right-wing conservative running – at least openly – this is what is going to happen. Mullen is in a field of his own, drawing to him every right wing and right of centre voter that there is. If you want to oust Mullen, you need to do two things. First, less liberal, progressive candidates diluting things over on that side. And second, somewhat paradoxically, we actually need more right-wing conservative candidates to run, to take away some of Mullen’s votes, enacting a split that other candidates can benefit from, potentially.

But I don’t see that happening really. The right-wing crowd have that advantage over the left: in this case they recognise that they have an easy way to win representation in Mullen, so why rock the boat? If only those on the left were as pragmatic. As it is,reflecting on this result, it seems likely to me that the three sitting senators, Mullen, McDowell and Higgins, have seats as long as they wish to have them, with the state of play surrounding their election so stacked in their favour that you would claim it was rigged if you didn’t know it was the norm of Irish politics. Perhaps we will be back here soon enough. If we are, the result will be the same.

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