Last stand for tallymen?

Political Reporter Michael O’Farrell reports on the tradition of calling results.

TOMORROW morning at 8.30am they will gather in their thousands, sharpened pencils, clipboards, and laptops at the ready.

Having won one last dramatic reprieve from extinction with the collapse of electronic voting, this weekend's election count is likely to be the tallyman's last stand.

As ballot boxes are opened and their precious contents spill out in count centres across the country, up to 5,000 tallymen will begin to churn numbers at a sickening pace.

In Dublin alone 1,500 tallymen the unsung soldiers of Irish democracy from all parties will co-operate in a mammoth effort to accurately call the local and European elections far in advance of the evening's official declarations.

"This is the D-Day operation," said veteran Labour Party tallyman James Wrynn.

"There will be effing and blinding and falling out but it will all be sorted out by 9.30pm," said another tallyman involved in organising the military-like Dublin operation.

The joint operations plan for the tally is an impressive document, outlining the role of markers, callers, runners, receivers, tally sheet callers and computer operators.

Although co-operation between the parties is common in tallies, Dublin's count will see the largest combined effort ever involving seasoned number crunchers from Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour, Sinn Féin, the Green Party, the Progressive Democrats and the Socialist Party.

Given the seriousness with which parties contest elections, the co-operation of tallymen from opposing parties may seem unlikely at first but is in fact a sensible enough measure.

By it's very nature joint party tallies ensures fairness and will inevitably uncover any attempts at election rigging.

"You might as well cooperate with your mortal enemy. It's not going to change anything," said Mr Wrynn.

"The election is over and nothing can be changed at that point in time. Everyone appreciates the work that goes in and there is an honest cooperation," added Fine Gael's Gerry Berrigan.

Both men, having tallied for decades, know this is likely their last time to see paper votes counted by hand. The tension and unbridled excitement of the manual count is something they will miss dearly.

"People like to see how the voting is going down. It's democracy in action," said Mr Berrigan.

James Wrynn, chairman of the Labour national organisation, said tallying was an invaluable means of engagement with the political system.

"It may be our last stand and if it is it would be a huge loss in terms of engagement with the political system.

"It's a massive lesson in how our system works for the ordinary punter and it is one of the reasons why people understand the system so well. It's a form of engagement, a form of political activity," he said.

It's also a form of concentration and pure skill rarely matched in any other voluntary activity. Tallymen are notorious for their eager eyes and speedy calculations.

According to one commentator, the characteristics required to be a tallyman include: "A sharp eye for detail, high numeracy skills, great patience, tolerance for fools, huge stamina, an ability to go without food and drink for hours on end, an unblinking eye, honesty and the fervour of a religious fanatic."

And as returning officers have learnt over the years, only a fool would stand up to announce an official result without checking first with the tallyman.

One legendary story from the 1982 general election involving two candidates of the same surname Garrett Fitzgerald and Fine Gael running mate Alexis Fitzgerald proved beyond doubt the value of listening to the tallyman.

That year the returning officer in the Dublin South East constituency ignored the pleas of the tallyman and proceeded to announce the result on the nation's airwaves.

However, the tallyman subsequently proved that a bundle of 1,000 votes supposed to go to Alexis had been counted for Garrett forcing the red-faced returning officer to go back on the airwaves to announce the true count figures.

According to Gerry Berrigan, the overall result was not altered unlike the behaviour of returning officers.

"Ever after that all returning officers will always make sure they check their result with the tallyman," he said.

More in this section

Puzzles logo

Puzzles hub

Cookie Policy Privacy Policy FAQ Help Contact Us Terms and Conditions

© Irish Examiner Ltd