Alison O’Connor: Sickness that infects Irish politics could sadly result in actual death

Alison O’Connor: Sickness that infects Irish politics could sadly result in actual death
Voters wait in line to cast their ballots in the state's primary election at a polling place, Tuesday, June 9, 2020, in Atlanta, Ga. Some voting machines went dark and voters were left standing in long lines in humid weather as the waiting game played out. Picture: AP/Ron Harris

In the history books it became known as the Democracy Cluster. 

Tragically there were five deaths associated with it, an unusually high number given the circumstances, but that’s the way the virus operated. You just couldn’t predict who might get mild symptoms and who would succumb.

It came about after Irish politicians – namely three parties - failed to agree to form a Government, despite the world being in turmoil owing to a once in a century event that dominated 2020. 

Incredible, in retrospect, to think that a pandemic was raging globally yet those parties Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and the Green Party failed to reach agreement after endless months of talks.

A wry quote, from one of the many books written about the period, summed up how tortuous it all became. 

Just as matters were said to be at the last lap the Greens introduced to the table the idea of legislating for medicinal cannabis – according to a leak.

“At that point the entire thing was so tortuous all involved would have been entitled to a personal prescription,” recalled one participant.

But it seemed that nothing could have been said or done to bring these negotiations to a successful conclusion. 

There was much talk about what a pity it was the party members and supporters never got to vote on a deal. 

Frankly, though, there had been so much negative mood music surrounding the talks, by the participants themselves, for so long, it was impossible to predict how that might have gone.

During the first 2020 general election campaign, just a few months previously, held in February of that year, it was acknowledged the Irish people were still suffering a degree of trauma from the financial crash of a decade ago. 

Now in the midst of further, life altering trauma, that same population found themselves once again staring up at election posters. 

People remember how odd it was answering the door to canvassers wearing masks and how none of them could give an adequate answer as to how any politician, from any party or none, thought it was a good idea to hold an election during such a dangerous time.

It was a logistical nightmare for the broadcasters trying to hold debates. Social distancing meant that some party leaders had to be in separate studios. 

Politicians were banned from shopping centres. The then Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan said he did not want to comment on any particular politician, or indeed election, but that in general political walkabouts on city streets were not a thing to be encouraged given that they caused people to gather together. 

He never said it outright but keen observers knew from that particular way he used to purse his lips that he thought the idea of a general election was utterly daft and dangerous. 

There was no end to the Zoom campaigning at the time, but a bit like US Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s efforts from his basement, earlier that year, during lockdown, they failed to sparkle.

The preparation for a second election that year had been ongoing, on a contingency basis, so it wasn’t a total bolt from the blue when it was called. But it is still remembered as a surreal moment. 

Everyone was nervous about the virus which had abated considerably after a lockdown but still lurked, with no sign of a vaccine. 

Sinn Féin, at an immediate advantage, made much of the risks involved, even with the plan to spread voting over a number of days.

Liveline was inundated with callers expressing their fury that just at the time when we needed to put our best foot forward nationally, we instead faced the prospect of being without a government for another few months. 

“It’s absolutely crazy Joe,” they fumed to the veteran broadcaster. “What are these lads at at all? It’s all about themselves.” There were just over 3.4 million people registered to vote in that election. 

It was easy enough to organise voting in places like our populated islands – a total of 19 islands off four constituencies. 

The highest number eligible to vote was 675 people on Co Galway’s, Inishmore. The social distancing was a bit of a nightmare there, even though the distance had been reduced just the week before to one metre – in line with World Health Organisation recommendations.

On the mainland authorities had the headache of dealing with far higher numbers. 

On voting day there were just over 6,500 polling stations spread throughout the country. The following day the counting for the 39 constituencies took place in count centres around the country, the largest number of votes were counted at the RDS where five of the Dublin constituencies had their ballot boxes turned out and votes counted. 

Under electoral law, returning officers are responsible for the conduct of elections and are independent in their functions. There was plenty of advice in advance on safety and social distancing and bottles of hand gel stood on every surface. 

The number of observers was severely restricted but there was no getting away from the up close and personal nature of counting for a PR system, and the inherent risks.

Looking back on it all afterwards Fine Gael realised it had once again made that basic mistake of thinking the electorate would show itself to be grateful for the party’s work, this time on the Covid emergency. 

That FG level of self belief once again confounded observers. No matter how hard he tried to shake it Fianna Fail’s then leader Micheal Martin had a bang of desperation off him throughout the entire campaign. 

He was so far gone beyond the last chance saloon his front benchers could barely contain their disregard for him during campaign outings.

The bitterness in the Greens as to what went on during that period remarkably remains as strong to this day. No one can agree exactly where it all went wrong. 

The then leader Eamon Ryan was seen as a victim of the “cancel culture” that was all pervasive at the time. As far as many of the newer members of the party were concerned he couldn’t do right for doing wrong. 

There were no shades of grey with those particular Greens – things were either black or white.

Usually with a general election the most interesting thing is the result, which party got the most seats, especially given that there had been an election so recently, and there would be much to compare.

But this time it was the deaths of those five people at that count centre – they had been counting the votes. 

All the precautions had apparently been taken, but it turns out there was a super spreader amongst them – one of that small group that transmit infections to far more people than the majority do. 

It was a terrible tragedy.

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