2021 Seanad By-Election Possibilties

I have very deliberately chosen not to refer to this as any kind of projection or prediction, because frankly, given how Seanad by-elections function (and “function” is a very generous term) it’s not really possible to do so. If you’re a normal human being with hobbies and friends and so on you might not know what all this is about, so here’s a run-down:

  • There are two vacancies in the Seanad, which have arisen for the most Irish Politics reasons possible. There will therefore be two by-election, on on the Agricultural Panel, one on the Industrial & Commercial Panel
    • Michael W. D’Arcy (FG) quit being a legislator so he could become a lobbyist (and in fairness to him, he’ll probably wield way more political influence this way)
    • Elisha McCallion (SF) was caught up in a financial scandal
  • The electorate for Seanad by-elections is all members of the Oireachtas. I’m not sure if that includes the Ceann Comhairle. As I couldn’t find anything saying he was excluded, I have included him
    • I could go on for ages about how stupid and undemocratic this system is, even in comparison to the already stupid and undemocratic system for regular Seanad elections. But I’ll spare everyone the full rant and just say it’s stupid and undemocratic
  • Ballots were issued on the 9th of April, and the count will be April 21st
  • The government has 124 votes out of 218, comfortably enough for a majority. And yet they have, in keeping with the general theme of this government, managed to make a mess of it
  • The saving grace for them here may be that opposition, perhaps due to the government’s overwhelming pre-implosion advantage, or perhaps due to its chronic inability to work together, aren’t coming at this with a unified strategy either
    • Sinn Féin, despite Dáil numbers, hold very few Seanad seats and thus didn’t put forward candidates of their own. They have endorsed Independent Unionist Ian Marshall, and, perhaps more confusingly, ex-FG businessman Billy Lawless
    • Labour are running their own no-hope candidates for reasons that are extremely unclear
    • The Soc Dems have endorsed Marshall, but nobody in the other election
    • PBP haven’t endorsed anybody, but they think the Seanad should be abolished so that’s not too surprising (and after doing this write up, I have to sympathise with their position a bit)
    • Independents/Others are as usual messy – some nominated Marshall, some nominated Lawless, and some nominated Chu
  • The most crucial thing to note is that neither of these by-elections matter and nobody cares (except for three Green Party senators, for whom it is apparently the end of the world)

Now, if you’re still here for some reason, let’s look at what might happen. Given that the government looks unable to stitch-up what should honestly have been the easiest stitch-up in the world, its not really possible to say with any certainty what will happen. But there are some permutations to consider.

Firstly, let’s assume that by some miracle the FF/FG vote pact endures without any rebellion. This is what was supposed to have happened. Note that here I’ve just assigned SD/PBP/IND votes (except those who specifically nominated someone else) to the candidate most likely to beat the government one; I don’t know if that necessarily will occur. I also don’t even know if PBP will even vote at all, as all the options are pretty unappealing to them. Finally, there’s always a handful of elected reps who manage to screw up their ballots and have them voided.

As you can see under this, Byrne and Horkan win outright majorities, even factoring in a minor Green rebellion to vote for Chu. This would be piss-up-in-a-brewery stuff for any halfway competent government, but as it is, I doubt things will be this clean of a break. It is worth noting that FF and FG do have enough cushion for a couple of defections, but when there’s already talk of 10+ rebels from FF, and desire among some in FG to support ex-FG member Lawless, that cushion starts to look very inadequate.

A large scale rebellion is not particularly likely, but it’s also worth looking at. Below is an indication of an absolute worst-case scenario for the government, where the FF/FG pact collapses entirely, with both parties’ non-ministerial members mutinying entirely, and the rebel Greens opting to vote for Marshall (at least some of them doing so is in my view fairly plausible, if entirely speculative).

This worst-case scenario would give an outright majority to non-government candidates. Now, I don’t think things will break down this cleanly either. But I think it’s worth looking at to work out what the tipping point will be – how many votes do the government candidates likely need to get their people elected? While the votes for the Labour candidates and for Chu aren’t of serious significance from an FPV perspective, but there’s a possibility they end up mattering. Note that this is all highly speculative – as flagged at the very start, it’s not really possible to make a rigourous, systematic projection of where the secret ballots of individual Oireachtas members will go.

Let’s assume the rumours are correct and FF will have 11 rebels who won’t vote for Byrne, and that Fine Gael will in parallel, have the same number of defections. Assume the Greens will hold the government line outside of those who nominated Chu in the I&C race, and exclude those who haven’t endorsed or nominated, and you end up with something like this:

Byrne ends up with a slim majority, and Horkan just below; it would only take a couple of Independents or transfers breaking his way to put him over the top. This remains realistic – I’d expect some of the rebel Green votes to find their way to Horkan before Lawless, and it’s possible that one or two independents will too. On the other panel, if Byrne ends up narrowly short, Labour have an absolutely wretched recent history of sending transfers to Fine Gael, and I’d expect a couple to break her way there as well. The margins under the current expectations are incredibly slim, so it really will only take one or two votes to tip the scales.

In short, while there are problems for the government candidates, based on the currently available information, they should still be favoured to take the seats. The key thing at this point will be if there is a much bigger rebellion than previously suggested. This is quite plausible under the secret ballot, as FG’s Fergus O’Dowd can attest – left-wing Independent Catherine Connolly defeated him in the election for Leas Ceann Comhairle, where at least 10 government TDs rebelled. The secret ballot enables this – the biggest rebellion so far in a non-secret ballot setting is 2.

A rebellion of the same size to the LCC vote would cost the government around 15 votes, and that would put us in the same ballpark as the last chart – which has a rebellion of 11 on Agri, and 17 on I&C. To make a difference, despite all the rumour and drama, the government voting pact needs to collapse on a much bigger scale than what has been reported in the papers so far. The best comparison for this is the 2018 by-election for the Agricultural Panel, where at least 40 members of the Confidence & Supply arrangement (FG & FF) didn’t vote for their own candidates, resulting in the election of Ian Marshall. We’ll find out soon if history will repeat for him.

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