Ireland: A lesson to be learnt?

While the European Union elections hold a certain amount of importance in Ireland, on this occasion at least, the campaign degenerated into a so-called entertainment or beauty contest without actual entertainment nor beauty. Instead, stupidity and personality were present in droves. With the result that come election day, people were none the wiser on who and what was running for the European Parliament.

The high-flyers in the campaign had plenty of media exposure a year before the elections and this together with the increasingly undemocratic nature of Irish politics contributed to the loss of Green seats in the European Union elections this year.

In Ireland, elections are very candidate-centred. For European elections this was even more so the case as only those with a high media profile or presence had much of a chance of being elected this year.

The Republic of Ireland has 13 MEPs and is divided into four constituencies, three with 3 seats, and one ,Dublin, with 4 seats. Northern Ireland also has 3 seats as part of the UK’s delegation to the European Parliament.

Ireland’s electoral system is the Proportional Representational Single Transferable Vote (PRSTV). So voters rank candidates from number 1 down to as many candidates they wish to give a preference for. This means elections are very personality driven and parties have to work very hard to win each seat. This involves canvassing (calling at a voter’s door), posters on lampposts (trees this year too! How un-Green, boo!), leaflets, media focusing and advertising.

Also this year the main parties, for the most part, ran two candidates in each constituency and then the media took this on board. All the radio or TV stations did was talk about the fights and bickering going on between the same party’s candidates. We had a Eurovision MEP up for re-election, Dana Rosemary Scallon (who lost) and a TV presenter, Mairéad McGuinness on agricultural issues who thought it was time for a change of career (who won).

One candidate, Royston Brady (Lord Mayor of Dublin until this June) annoyed the hell out of the voters by appearing on every lamppost, every double-decker bus and every billboard in the city. He refused to debate or go on TV or radio and thus had a chicken sound played by Today FM radio station whenever they mentioned his name. Brady was in the news for interviews prior to the elections denouncing his former Dublin City Council colleagues and predecessors as clowns and pulling other stunts to get attention. A claim by him that his father’s taxi had been hijacked on the night of the Dublin & Monaghan Bombings thirty years ago, however, lost him any chance of taking a seat. For weeks Brady had been top of the opinion polls, but this final stunt – the day before the elections – to get a sympathy vote brought his stupidity out into the open and on election day he was trounced by the other candidates.

Before the elections, the Greens had two seats in the European Parliament. Patricia McKenna for Dublin and Nuala Ahern for Leinster (a big province on the east coast of Ireland). Both were elected in 1994 and surprised the establishment because suddenly the Green Party had two MEPs. Both were extremely hard workers on core Green issues such as food safety, nuclear power, renewable energy, animal welfare.

Patricia McKenna was a giant of a politician who was never afraid to challenge the conservative parties and governments who were failing to live up to European Union environmental directives. McKenna was loved and hated for being ubiquitous – on radio, TV, in newspapers, and at public meetings and protests. Patricia will forever be remembered for bringing the State to court for the abuse of taxpayers’ money in trying to sway the voters to just one side in a referendum, and the High Court handed down the McKenna Judgement giving citizens the right of access to equal amounts of information or debate on either side in a referendum.

It was a tragedy for Patricia to lose her seat but it was not her fault. She put at least €100 000 into her campaign. Rather it was the Party leadership who did nothing for her. Whereas the other parties were out in force for their candidates, the Green Party did not do anything to ensure Patricia would have a campaign that drew attention from the media or the public. She faced strong competition from big names – two MPs, another MEP whose Party had a better campaign, and a female candidate for Sinn Féin (a Party with links to the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), it could be said to be subordinate to the Army Council, which decides the IRA’s actions).

McKenna was also perceived to be negative by many. Although she had been extremely vociferous in the early days, Patricia had toned this down and become a mature voice from 1999 onwards. Unfortunately the party did not strategically pour resources into her campaign, as had they done so, the seat would not have been lost.
In Leinster, Nuala Ahern announced rather lately – November 2003 – that she was going to step down due to health concerns. Again the leadership made a mess of this situation. Ahern stayed as an MEP right up until May 2004, when the Parliament finished up for the elections. Her replacement – Mary White, deputy leader of the Party – was chosen last November. White had a history of contesting elections, and nearly took a Dáil – national parliament – seat in 2002 but did not have enough of a high profile for such a big electoral area as Leinster. If the Party had been thinking strategically it would have gotten Nuala Ahern to step down immediately and given Mary White the post until the elections. Having said that, the reduction of the Leinster constituency from 4 seats to 3 seats, would have made it hard anyway for her to take a seat there.

Tough lessons will have been learnt by Comhoantas Glas after these atrocious results. The only consultation was a measly doubling of local council seats which had elections on the same day. We lost our two European seats and it will take a lot to get them back. Hopefully, the Party will put in place a strategy for at least taking the Dublin seat back in 2009. I won’t hold my breath on that however.

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