I was just about to toast the mustard and cumin seeds for my toor dal when the car covered with placards pulled into our yard near the kitchen door and two fellows hopped out. I knew what they were here about.
When our daughter arrived for Christmas bearing quality Indian spices for me, I was eager to try them. Tonight, I was making butter chicken using turmeric, garam masala, and ground cumin, along with the toor dal, some naan, and rice. Reluctantly, I put the fry pan to the side of the hob and went to the door to greet the men.
“We’re canvassing for Brendan Griffin,” the first man says to me.
“Would ye consider giving him a number one?” the second follows-up.
Brendan is one of the five TDs (Teachta Dála, a member of the Dáil Éireann, the lower house of the Irish Parliament) for Kerry, where we live. He is a member of Fine Gael, currently the plurality party in the government, and a Minister of State for Tourism and Sport. He seems a likable enough young fellow and is very good at standing beside road signs to announce new road works funded by the government.
I’ve been expecting these visits from canvassers for the candidates, so I’ve been doing my homework.
“I have a few questions for ye about Brendan,” I say.
They blanch, not quite prepared for questions.
After they leave, I go back to my spices.
Leo Varadkar, the current Taoiseach (akin to Prime Minister), announced the dissolution of the Dáil on January 14 and scheduled an election for a new Dáil for Saturday, February 8, in just over three weeks. Candidates are chosen, posters go up on roadsides and intersections across the country, canvassers go from door to door, the leaders of the major parties have a few televised debates, and then, in short order, we vote.
This, I must say, is quite refreshing for someone from the states who is used to a never-ending campaign starting the day after the previous election.
A few days after the first canvassers were here, I had a Guinness lamb stew simmering on the cooker, when a pickup truck rolled in covered with decals and blasting traditional music. This, I thought, has to be for Michael Healey-Rae. Michael, and his brother Danny, are Independent members of the Dáil from Kerry and members of the dominant family in local politics. Their father, Jackie, was a legend in Kerry. Other members of the family are on the County Council, and fortuitously, one serves as the director of elections.
Michael, the younger brother, a slim man in his early fifties, always dressed in his trademark black flat cap, is renowned in the area for his service to his constituents. Stories abound of his personal and timely assistance in dealing with the bureaucracy of government. Sadly, less savory stories also abound.
Danny, the older brother by 13 years, is rumored to be in some electoral difficulty this time around. He is well known for his opposition to drink driving laws, claiming “Sure, shouldn’t a man be allowed to have a few pints and drive back to his home?” He does, it should be noted, own a pub. He also is opposed to climate change, saying recently, “To hell with the planet and the fellas that say we must save the planet and forget about the people.” The next day, fair play to him, he apologized to the planet. His position on the influence of fairies on road construction has also been criticized. He is, shall we say, a character.
The brothers are best known for sitting together on the back benches of the Dáil and giving out to the others in the assembly, feeding off each other like an Irish version of Diamond & Silk, but with thick Kerry accents.
I go to the door. A man and woman approach.
“Ah sure, that stew smells lovely,” they begin. “Will ye be voting in the election?”
“I will,” I say.
“And would you give Michael Healey-Rae a Number One? He is very good for the people.”
“Well, let’s say, I’ve heard both good and bad about Michael.”
They shake their heads, sighing deeply.
“And what’s the bad ye’ve heard?” the man reluctantly asks.
“To be honest with ye,” I say, “I’ve heard that Michael isn’t afraid of the occasional brown envelope.”
“Well now, I couldn’t be denying that,” the man answers.
“And the good?” the woman jumps in, trying to turn the conversation.
“That if you have a problem, Michael will take care of you,” I offer.
“So, you’ll vote him Number One, then?” she replies brightly. “And Danny Number Two?”
All politics, as they say, is local.
Later that week, two fellows from Ballyferriter stop by after our stir-fry dinner. I was already in my pajamas. They were canvassing for Pa Daley, the Sinn Fein candidate. Sinn Fein has been a minor party in Ireland, but recent polls show them gaining strength across the country. I pepper them with questions about immigration and direct provision centers, housing and health care, and other hot topics of the election. They have ready answers and are easily the most prepared of the canvassers that have shown up to our kitchen door.
Candidates for other parties miss us. I see no one from Fianna Fáil or Labour or the Greens.
There is also a smattering of small fringe candidates in the race. One, in particular, intrigues me. He is an emigrant from California who is running on an anti-immigration platform demanding to “Keep Ireland for the Irish.” I wonder if he forgot to pack his sense of irony when he moved here.
Saturday, February 8th, is a bitter, stormy day. There are concerns that the high winds and rain will suppress turnout. There is also a major rugby match between Ireland and Wales in Dublin that afternoon that may keep people glued to the telly. Pundits warn people to get out early to avoid the worst of the storm.
I drive into town around 8:30, holding onto my hat and leaning into the wind as I walk down Goat Street to my polling place in the old convent. The nice ladies behind the table check me in and hand me my ballot. Here in Ireland, we have a form of ranked choice voting. I place a number one beside my first choice, a two beside my second choice, and so on. I vote for five total candidates out of the twelve on the ballot, fold the ballot in two, drop it in the box, thank the kind ladies, and head back into the storm.
That afternoon Sara and I turn on the news to catch up on the turnout. Despite the storm and the big match, turnout seems to be quite strong. There was some concern early on in Malin Head, the northernmost constituency in Ireland. The RTE correspondent there reported that the morning turnout was abnormally light, but local people blamed that on a dinner dance on Friday night. Turnout picked up in the afternoon when voters had sufficiently recovered. There was also a problem in Connemara where one of the polling places lost power, so they had to move to a private home. Fortunately, tea and cakes were offered by the homeowner. As it happens, voter turn-out is 63 per cent nationally and a robust 69 per cent in Kerry.
The first round of votes is counted on Sunday. Explaining how votes are counted, though, is like explaining the rules of cricket.
Here’s how it works. Say a constituency like Kerry has five seats to fill and there are 64,000 votes cast, then a candidate would need 12,500 votes, or one fifth of the total, to be elected. Michael Healy-Rae and Pa Daly exceed that threshold on Sunday and are declared elected. Their excess votes above 12,500 (each had between 1,000 to 2,000 extra votes) are then distributed among the remaining candidates in a second round based on ballot preferences. Candidates with low vote totals are removed, which happened to the confused fellow from California. And so it goes, round after round, with low-vote candidates removed and their votes redistributed, until all five seats are filled. This process stretches the vote counting into Tuesday.
Danny Healy-Rae and Brendan Griffin are elected in Round 6 and Norma Foley, a Fianna Fáil candidate in Round 8.
Now you would think that would be the end of it and all the TDs would assemble in Dublin and get on with governing the country.
Sinn Fein, in a major upset, received the most votes, and 37 seats. Fianna Fáil had the second most votes but won 38 seats. Fine Gael, the party that currently leads the government, came in third with 35 seats. The rest of the 160 seats were won by a smattering of other parties and independents, including the Healy-Raes. To form a government, someone must cobble together a coalition of eighty TDs.
And here we stand, three weeks out from the election, and no government has been formed. Negotiations continue.
While we wait, I’ll be cooking. Uninterrupted.