18 June 2009 Edition
Third time lucky as Sinn Féin have to win key council seat three times
BY ROBBIE SMYTH
SINN FÉIN’S final victory in the local elections had to wait six days after polling before a winner was declared of the last council seat in Cavan’s Belturbet ward.
Damien Brady’s victory, by just one vote, was hotly disputed by Fianna Fáil, who held up the electoral count, drafting in legal representatives from Dublin but all in vain.
What they hadn’t reckoned with was that a dedicated Sinn Féin team also dug in at the Cavan Town count centre, ensuring that democracy and electoral law would be upheld.
An Phoblacht spoke to some of the key people in the Cavan count marathon nicknamed ‘Florida 2’ by several wags. There was no hanging chad but there was intrigue, confusion and a lot of hot air... but enough about Fianna Fáil.
Running for elected office is hard in many ways. It is not just that the candidate and their family have to face the media spotlight or take on the burden of the hard slog of a campaign. It is also that all of this boils down to the day of the count and the returning officer publicly giving you the voters’ verdict on your candidacy.
Last week, Sinn Féin’s Damien Brady – a party activist, council worker, part-time firefighter, husband to Vanessa and father to Aoife, Dearbhla and Fianna – had to endure not one but three election counts before he was finally elected to Cavan County Council.
BOGUS LEGAL CLAIMS
His success came after a week-long struggle to see off bogus legal claims by Fianna Fáil who sought by any means possible to halt an electoral slide. They lost three councillors in Cavan, seriously undermining the Dáil seat of Agriculture Minister Brendan Smith. Smith’s brother, Seán, was elected on the ninth count along with Damien Brady and John Paul Feely of Fianna Fáil in this five-seat electoral ward.
Brady polled 8.74% of the first preferences and was behind the twin Fianna Fáil candidates of Seamus McGahern and Sean Smith after the first count.
The election hinged on the ninth count vote distribution of Seamus Fitzpatrick, an Independent candidate. Seán Smith got 71 votes from Fitzpatrick, leaving him on 1,083 votes and elected to the fourth seat. Brady got 152 transfers compared to McGahern’s 124, putting Brady on 1,004 votes and elected compared to McGahern’s 1,003.
Sinn Féin’s Damien Brady had been briefly ahead on the fourth and fifth counts, then trailed McGahern 13 votes on the sixth count, two on the seventh, falling back to 27 votes behind after the eighth count.
It was 2.30am on Sunday morning when the result was finally announced with the returning officer also declaring that there would be a recount on the Monday, leaving Damien Brady a Sunday to contemplate his momentary victory and a week he described as “living on your nerves”. On the Sunday, “I crossed my fingers, toes and everything I could cross.”
Director of elections Eddie Fitzpatrick convened a meeting on the Sunday. Sinn Féin were determined to hold on to their seat and needed to make plans. “We laughingly said, this could go on all week,” said Fitzpatrick.
On Monday, 8 June, around 9.30pm, a second result was announced. Brady had won the seat again, this time by three votes – and Fianna Fáil called for a recount. Returning officer Ger Finn said they would reconvene on Tuesday morning at 10am.
Already at the second count all day Monday in Cavan was Sinn Féin’s Ruadhán Mac Aodháin, party activist and barrister. Ruadhán should have been recovering from his own count as a candidate in Dublin’s North Inner City ward, but when the phone call came on Sunday asking him to go to Cavan, he drove up first thing on Monday morning. It was, he said, “a great way to clear your head” after the drama of the RDS on Saturday and Sunday.
Still tired and recovering from a long campaign, split between months working in Leinster House with Arthur Morgan and the endless footfall of a nightly canvass knocking on doors and attending meetings, Ruadhán did not reckon on five days in a Cavan counting centre up against an ever-growing Fianna Fáil legal team.
But armed only with “copies of the 1992 Electoral Act and the accompanying statutory instruments” (his description), Ruadhán Mac Aodháin proved to be more than a match for the might of Fianna Fáil’s legal team.
On Monday morning, Sinn Féin’s west Cavan director of elections, Eddie Fitzpatrick, and Ruadhán Mac Aodháin met with Belturbet returning officer Ger Finn and their Fianna Fáil counterparts. They agreed to a partial recount.
Only two boxes were open at any one time so both parties could ensure total transparency of the proceedings. Initially, four votes that were thought to be spoilt were recovered, and this figure was added to during the day with both parties paying close attention to every vote.
It came as no surprise on Monday night when, as the returning officer announced the result of the second count, he added that there would be a third. Mac Aodháin said that each candidate is entitled to a recount and the one announced in the early hours of Sunday was the returning officer’s, so the second recount would be the Fianna Fáil one.
What did come as a surprise was Fianna Fáil demands for a total manual recount. The Fianna Fáil legal team, now grown to four people, claimed that the 11 additional votes found in Monday’s recount had “brought the integrity of the whole count into question”.
Ruadhán Mac Aodháin and Sinn Féin DOE Eddie Fitzpatrick argued that this was not provided for in the legislation and the ballot papers had to stay in the same bundles and order as they were originally counted. They could be rechecked but no more.
This prompted Returning Officer Ger Finn to seek his own legal advice. Sinn Féin requested that the returning officer meet no more than two party representatives at any one time to prevent badgering. The count was the hub of an industry of rumour and allegations all week.
Mac Aodháin told An Phoblacht that Fianna Fáil were determined to press ahead with a full manual recount, driven by the fear, according to Fitzpatrick that “if they lost this seat now, they would never get it back”.
Then the gossip around the count centre was that Fianna Fáil were to bring a senior counsel to the count. They already had a junior counsel and two solicitors, one of whom, Brendan Killeen, spoke to all who would listen about the 1992 Ben Briscoe/Eric Byrne marathon election ten-day recount.
Fianna Fáil wanted the Fine Gael votes rechecked; they wanted a full manual recount. They were threatening to go to the High Court to stop the count. Clifford Kelly, the Fianna Fáil former whip on Cavan Council, went on Northern Sound radio, declaring he wanted democracy. Brady quipped to An Phoblacht that Kelly, who had lost his seat on Saturday in Bailieborough, was getting democracy every night in the town leisure centre hosting the count.
The Fianna Fáil demands came to nothing. Sinn Féin insisted that the returning officer should abide by his own independent legal opinion and on Thursday, 11 May, a third and final recount began, ending at 7pm.
It concluded with the returning officer taking both candidates and their DOEs into a quiet corner in the hall to say, ‘Sorry that it took so long’ and confirmed the original result of the Sunday morning.
Damien had won by one vote. The Sinn Féin supporters “lifted the roof off” with their cheers.
Tomorrow, Friday, 19 June, is Damien Brady’s first council meeting. Hopefully, his tenure as councillor will go a lot more smoothly than his election.
LAST MAN STANDING: Damien refuels after an exhausting count