CORK South West proved to be a microcosm of the rest of the country when it returned Michael D Higgins as president with 55% of the first preference votes.
But, there were little or no celebrations when the first and only count was announced by the returning officer, Jerome O’Sullivan, at 4pm last Saturday, because the hall was virtually empty.
Among the handful of spectators was Denis Kingston, who – at the age of 83 – is a veteran of election counts in Cork South West.
As a former chairman of the Cork South West Fine Gael party, and as a former Director of Elections, he couldn’t resist calling into the Clonakilty Community Centre to see how the count was going.
‘I thought there would be a house half-full, but it was more of a wake than a wedding,’ said Mr Kingston, who counted one guard, three maintenance staff, and four or five spectators.
‘When I left there was literally nobody there,’ said Mr Kingston, who has been attending election counts in West Cork since the 1970s.
Earlier in the day, a solitary tallyman turned up for an hour or two but he had to leave to go to his day job. He, too, described the situation in the hall as ‘unprecedented’, especially when you consider just how seriously the people of Cork South West take their politics.
That is not an idle boast: there was, for example, one occasion when people filled the hall like proverbial sardines and no one moved an inch when the fire alarm went off.
Last Saturday, there were more officials present than anything else: behind the barricades there were 44 scrutineers, two calculators, one supervisor and the returning officer – all of whom were as helpful as they always are.
From 9am until about noon, they focused on opening and checking the 130 ballot boxes in the constituency, plus the box with the postal vote, and the first and only count showed that Michael D Higgins received 16,860 first preference votes, which accounted for 55% of the vote.
In second place was Peter Casey with 6,582, which accounted for approximately 21.5% of the vote in Cork South West. Munster MEP Liadh Ní Riada came in in third place with 2,489, at 8% approximately; Sean Gallagher with 2,374 at 7.8%; Joan Freeman with 1,635 at 5.3%; and Gavin Duffy with 680 first preference votes, which was 2.2%.
According to Mr Kingston, the poor turnout was an indication of people’s lack of interest in this presidential election. He was of the opinion that there was ‘only one real presidential candidate in the race.’
Mr Kingston dismissed the huge surge in Peter Casey’s vote – from 1% in the pre-election polls to 21.5% locally and 23.3% nationally – as merely ‘a protest vote.’
A protest vote, or not, Peter Casey is the only candidate to exceed the 12.5% threshold required to have his election expenses – up to a limit of €200,000 – paid by the State.
Most commentators are interpreting his huge increase in support as peoples’ private endorsement of his controversial comments about the Travelling community, but Peter Casey denied there was anything racist in his remarks.
Munster MEP Liadh Ní Riada, who was placed third in the voting in Cork South West with 8% and joint-third with Sean Gallagher in the national vote with 6.4%, was expected to do better because she is considered ‘local.’
Although she was born in Dublin, Liadh Ní Riada was raised in West Cork, and now lives in Ballyvourney, the Muskerry Gaeltacht area of County Cork.
As the daughter of the composer Seán Ó Riada and as a member of Sinn Féin – the party that insisted on a democratic election rather than ‘a coronation’ of Michael D Higgins – she was considered to have a higher profile than some of the other candidates but since last Saturday, Sinn Féin has been at a loss to account for the dramatic drop in its core vote.
Sean Gallagher who out-polled Michael D Higgins in Cork South West in the 2011 presidential election with 12,449 to Michael D’s 12,047 took 6.4% of the national vote, but this time out he only took 2,374 first preferences, which accounted for just 7.7% of the vote in this constituency.
With Joan Freeman at 6% and Gavin Duffy at just 2.2% nationally, the figures show that Peter Casey at 23.3% did better than the four remaining candidates who collectively garnered 21% of the national vote.
Cork South West has always enjoyed a higher-than-average turnout and that was borne out on this occasion too. However, given that the national turnout was an historic low of 43.9%, Cork South West only marginally put a braver face on things by producing a turnout of 48.5%.
CORK SOUTH WEST:
Michael D Higgins 16,860
Peter Casey 6,582
Liadh Ni Riada 2,489
Sean Gallagher 2,374
Joan Freeman 1,635
Gavin Duffy 680
Total Poll: 30,966
Spoiled Votes: 346
Total Valid Poll: 30,620