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Every vote counts: The closest election results in recent Irish history

The man who won a Dáil seat by one vote tells us: “It was an awful way to win, but a terrible way to lose.”

90409668 Source: RollingNews.ie

“GO AND VOTE” is a mantra you’ll be hearing a lot today.

From broadcasters, and from candidates, whose only concern, of course, is that you take part in the democratic process, regardless of who you give your Number 1 to.

In countless Facebook posts, and a text message from your mother: Don’t forget to vote. Make sure you leave time to get to the polling station. EVERY VOTE COUNTS.

But throughout Irish history, there have been several examples of Dáil seats, even political careers, being decided by the ballot papers of fewer people than you could fit around a table in the Dáil bar.

  • Last time, Independent candidate Catherine Connolly lost out on the final seat in Galway West by just 17 votes and after a four-day recount.

Three Dáil seats in the last 35 years have been won by five votes.

  • In 1982, Fianna Fáil’s Dan Wallace was edged out by his party colleague Seán French after 11 counts in Cork North-Central.
  • In 1987, Tánaiste and Labour leader Dick Spring held on to his seat in Kerry North by just five votes, after six counts and a full recount, defeating Fianna Fáil’s Tom McEllistrim. Five years later, he led the party to its most successful election ever, and became Tánaiste again.
  • In 1989, former Louth Gaelic footballer Jimmy Mulroy lost out to future Justice Minister Dermot Ahern, by just five votes.

00010685 Eric Byrne (C) and Ben Briscoe (R) during the longest election recount in Irish history, in 1997. Source: RollingNews.ie

And Dublin South-Central in 1992 saw the “Ben and Eric Show” – when Fianna Fáil’s Ben Briscoe and Democratic Left’s Eric Byrne sat through what is believed to be the longest recount in Irish history.

After 13 counts, Byrne won the seat by 10 votes, but after 10 days of recounts, the result was overturned, leading the victorious Briscoe to famously describe the experience as “The Agony and the Ex-TD.”

In the following election, a political rivalry for the ages was born when the Green Party’s John Gormley defeated Progressive Democrat Michael McDowell by 35 votes, after a week-long recount in Dublin South-East.

McDowell vowed to quit politics then, telling reporters his decision was “irrevocable” and would take effect “whenever I get off the cross of this interminable recount.”

Five years later, he was back in the Dáil, and in 2007, Gormley got the better of him again, edging him out for the final seat by just 304 votes, making McDowell the first Tánaiste in history to lose his seat.

We talked to three politicians at the heart of two of the closest elections in recent memory, and found out what they learned from their roles in Irish political history.

‘An awful way to win, but a terrible way to lose’ – Limerick-West, 2002

finucanenevilleface Former Fine Gael TD Michael Finucane (L) and retiring Fine Gael TD Dan Neville (R) Source: RollingNews.ie

As close elections go, Dan Neville has them all beat.

In 2002, he won the last of three seats in Limerick West, edging out his Fine Gael colleague Michael Finucane, by exactly one vote.

The two men had what Neville somewhat diplomatically calls a “keen competition” within the party in Limerick West for more than a decade.

In 1987, the Fine Gael vote was split and both men lost out, with Fianna Fáil taking two seats, and the PDs the third.

Two years later, Neville – who is retiring as a TD this year – stood aside and was elected to the Seanad, clearing the way for Finucane to grab a Dáil seat for Fine Gael.

In 1992, Finucane retained it, with Neville failing to get elected and staying on in the Seanad.

In 1997, both were elected – the first time ever that Fine Gael took two out of three seats in traditionally Fianna Fáil-dominated Limerick-West.

Neville topped the poll, and Finucane was later made Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee.

“There were some battles won for him and some battles won for me,” Neville told TheJournal.ie this week, in the years leading up to what would be a contest for the history books in 2002.

finucanenevillefinal Source: Oireachtas.ie

From the very outset of the count, the two were neck and neck.

Neville had a lead of just 36 votes at first, before a swing in the second count left Finucane six votes ahead.

As an illustration of just how extraordinarily close the results were, when Fianna Fáil’s Michael Collins crossed the line on the third count, 183 of his transfers went to Finucane, and 184 went to Neville.

The gap between the party colleagues was narrowed to five votes.

“We were close enough,” Neville says, in his characteristically understated manner. ”But I was transfer-friendly from all other candidates.” This was to prove the difference.

On the fourth count, all the other remaining candidates – from the Green Party, Christian Solidarity party, and an Independent – were eliminated. Neville took 702 of their transfers, and Finucane took 696, leaving Neville one vote ahead.

Finucane ordered a recount, which began on Saturday night and continued for alost two days. The trend, however, was becoming clear by Sunday – Neville’s lead was widening – and on Monday lunchtime, Finucane decided to end everyone’s agony, and conceded.

The recount was cut short, and in the end, that six-vote swing in transfers on Saturday gave Dan Neville back a seat in Dáil Éireann by the smallest possible margin.


However, amid the nitty gritty of political rivalry, keen-eyed tallymen and half-stamped ballots that weekend, Neville was hurtled back into the real world.

The day of the election, my wife got a call to say her father was seriously ill in the nursing home. Then on the day of the first count we were informed he would not survive.

Neville’s father-in-law had lived with the family for 17 years, and while he and his son Tom (running in Limerick County in this year’s election) kept an eye on the count, the rest of the family spent the day in his company at the nursing home.

Then, on the Saturday, just as the count adjourned, we got a phone call that he had died.

“It was very, very personal,” he adds.

When I was elected, I took some of my colleagues for one drink, and then I went away to arrange the funeral.

There was no elation, Neville says.

Even with my supporters at the declaration, there was no triumphalism at all, there was just a very quiet clap.

This was especially so because of the agonising manner in which he had edged out Finucane, who ran again in 2007, but lost.

“It was an awful way to win an election,” Neville says. “But it was a terrible way to lose it.”

Finucane, who didn’t respond to our attempts to reach him for this article, never held office again after 2002. He remains active in politics, however, and was campaign manager for MEP Seán Kelly’s successful re-election bid in 2014.

The family bereavement surrounding Neville’s historic win in 2002 should provide some perspective for any candidates who come out on the wrong end of a long and painful count this weekend.

It is very, very traumatic for themselves and their family. They’ll feel especially for their families and their campaigners – the many people who worked so hard for them.

“I was there, and I came back,” he advises. “Don’t give up.”

Digging a ditch and watching cricket – Cork South-Central, 2002

00025256 Kathy Sinnott, who won (and then lost) the final seat in Cork South-Central, in 2002. Source: RollingNews.ie

With his livelihood on the line, and seven children to help provide for, John Dennehy sat at home in Togher all day and watched cricket.

It was Saturday, 18 May 2002, and the votes were being counted in the constituency of Cork South-Central, after the general election the previous day.

“I’m not big into cricket, but I think England were playing India, if I remember correctly,” he told TheJournal.ie this week.

It was probably the slowest thing I could find on television.

Dennehy, an incumbent Fianna Fáil TD, was a steel fitter by trade, and a former supervisor at Irish Steel, before getting into politics.

He won a seat in 1987, getting the second-highest number of first preference votes, but lost it to party colleague Batt O’Keeffe five years later.

After what he calls “a moment of madness”, he decided to throw his hat in the ring again in 1997, and won one of three Fianna Fáil seats that year, along with Micheál Martin, and O’Keeffe again.

At around the same time, with counting under way, Kathy Sinnott was digging a ditch outside her home in the village of Ballinhassig, on the southern edge of the constituency.

“I thought, ‘If I become a TD, no-one’s going to do this, so I better get it done’”, she told TheJournal.ie by phone from the US this week.

She had come to national prominence two years earlier as disability campaigner, successfully suing the state to secure the right of her adult son Jamie, who is autistic, to get a primary education, although the ruling was later overturned by the Supreme Court.

sinnottdennehy Source: Oireachtas.ie

Dennehy was 549 votes ahead of Sinnott after the first count, and stretched his lead until Labour’s Brendan Ryan, and future Fine Gael MEP Deirdre Clune were eliminated on the sixth count, and Sinnott took the bulk of their transfers.

When she took 930 transfers from Simon Coveney, she was within 30 of Dennehy.

The Green Party’s Dan Boyle was elected on the 10th count, and most of his transfers also went to Sinnott, giving her the last of five Dáil seats by an astonishing three votes, at 4am on Sunday morning.

But that was far from the end of the story.

Dennehy recalls that Mick O’Brien – one of his supporters and the late uncle of Sinn Féin TD Jonathan O’Brien – spotted some irregularities with around 50 ballots, and called in Micheál Martin, who had topped the poll and exceeded the quota by almost 5,000 votes.

Fianna Fáil ordered a recount.

00041152 2002 file photo of Micheál Martin, who topped the poll in Cork South-Central, and came to the aid of John Dennehy during his recount. Source: RollingNews.ie

Sinnott remembers the future party leader supervising proceedings with an eagle eye, and “arguing until he was red in the face” over every last ballot paper.

“It was tense, very tense,” says Dennehy. “I tried not to get despondent or get my hopes up.”

“He was suffering incredibly,” is how Sinnott remembers it.

After losing his seat in 1992, Dennehy says he and his wife Philomena had experienced a certain degree of financial pressure, surviving off his pension from Irish Steel and having “no outside resources,” but he emphasises that her support for him was unflinching and essential to him.

“Kathy’s right,” he says. “There was a huge amount on the line for us.”

Despite the high stakes, the many hours of agonising waiting, and the knowledge that one of them would have to lose, Dennehy says “there was no animosity” between the candidates.

We never fell out. We kind of stayed close and watched the counts. There was concern for the other, I think it’s fair to say.

When she initially came out on top after the 10th count, Sinnott says she “felt bad about winning.”

But it was a consolation that I could put [John] out of his misery.

54 File photo of John Dennehy TD. Source: Oireachtas.ie

On the Monday, however, the first recount reversed the result, giving Dennehy a lead of two votes.

The front page of the next morning’s Irish Examiner carried a photo of Sinnott and Dennehy embracing tightly, after his lead was announced.

And on Wednesday night, the second recount resulted in him winning the final seat by six votes.

“The relief was unimaginable,” he recalls. “I felt 10 feet tall.”

After that came the gratitude. He tried to track down some of those who had voted for him, and sent many letters of effusive thanks.

What amazed me was the answering machine at home – it was emptied I’d say 20 times.
I couldn’t believe the number of phone calls – people praying, lighting candles, you name it.

John Dennehy, who lost that election by two votes, before winning it by six, has a message for anyone thinking of staying at home today.

“If only six people – one carload – had stayed at home, I wouldn’t have been elected,” he says.

“Every single vote is crucial.”

Read: Here’s the great TheJournal.ie guide to voting in an Irish election>

Explainer: How does Ireland’s voting system work?>

About the author:

Dan MacGuill

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