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Sinead Burke

Everything you need to know about the strangest election in Irish politics

A Seanad by-election is a strange creature that’s not without controversy.

THERE WILL BE a by-election for a vacant seat in the Seanad next month where the result is, barring something untoward happening, a foregone conclusion.

Labour candidate Mairia Cahill, an abuse victim who has been an outspoken critic of the republican movement, is set to take the seat vacated by Jimmy Harte.

But why is that so and who else is technically in the running? Let explain all…

Why is there a by-election? 

Start of the General Elections Campaigns Laura Hutton / Photocall Ireland Laura Hutton / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

Labour senator Jimmy Harte formally resigned his seat on the Seanad’s Commercial and Industrial Panel last month. The decision came two years after he sustained a serious head injury following a fall in Dublin.

The Donegal politician has spent the last two years recuperating but decided that he was not well enough to return to Leinster House and the vacancy he leaves has triggered a by-election.

How does that work? 

If you thought it was unusual that only the Taoiseach, councillors and certain university graduates can elect people to the upper house, then you’ll be amazed that the electorate for a by-election is even smaller. Only members of the Oireachtas, i.e. every TD and Senator, can vote in a Seanad by-election.

Who are the candidates they can vote for?

7/10/2015 Mairia Cahill New Labour Candidates Leah Farrell Leah Farrell

As we outlined above, Labour has put forward Mairia Cahill. She has become a prominent figure in Irish public life over the last 18 months after she spoke to the BBC about the abuse she suffered in the republican movement and the botched handling of her allegations by senior figures, including Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams.

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For its part, Sinn Féin has put forward Meath county councillor Sinead Burke, a former mayor of Navan, to contest the by-election. Fianna Fáil has nominated Mayo-based GP Keith Swanick.

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There’s also a familiar name among the candidates in Jerry Beades, a former Fianna Fáil member and spokesman for the New Land League, who is running as an independent.

15/4/2015. Gorse Hill Stand Off Cases

Without the backing of a party, Beades needed the support of nine Oireachtas members. He got nominations from senators David Norris, Ronan Mullen, Feargal Quinn, Seán Barrett, Fidelma Healy-Eames, Mary-Ann O’Brien and Averil Power, as well as TDs Mattie McGrath and Michael Healy-Rae.

What about Fine Gael? 

Given it was a seat occupied by a Labour senator, Fine Gael has said it is not putting forward a candidate and the party will instead throw its support behind the Labour nominee Cahill.

This is why her election is likely to be a foregone conclusion assuming all of the government TDs and Senators support Cahill in the secret ballot. It would be a bit embarrassing for the government otherwise.

Speaking of embarrassment, didn’t Fine Gael screw this up last year? 

That’s right. You might recall the McNulty-gate scandal which concerned Fine Gael’s botched efforts to fill the seat vacated by newly-elected MEP Deirdre Clune.

The party nominated Donegal shop owner John McNulty for a vacant seat on the Cultural and Educational panel. However the failed Donegal local election candidate was placed on the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) at the last minute in order to boost his qualifications for the panel in question.

This led to accusations of cronyism on Fine Gael’s part and put particular scrutiny on new Arts Minister Heather Humphreys – who had appointed McNulty to the IMMA board – and the Taoiseach Enda Kenny.


The controversy ran for weeks and saw McNulty eventually withdraw his candidacy and the Taoiseach was forced to apologise (sort of).

However, McNulty still appeared on the ballot papers and in the end, the reluctant candidate only narrowly lost out to independent Gerard Craughwell who now sits in the Seanad.

Cripes. So, what happens this year? 

Nominations have now closed, there are four candidates and ballot papers will be delivered to TDs and Senators on 30 October.

They have a fortnight to decide who to vote for before the deadline of 13 November when the ballot papers will be collected, counted and a result declared.

What’s likely to happen? 

It is a secret ballot, but given Fine Gael and Labour are publicly backing Mairia Cahill, it seems a dead cert that the new Labour party member will be sitting in the Seanad come the end of next month.

Read: The government won’t be doing any Seanad reform after all

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