My life in politics

Twenty-one years ago I made my first (and only) foray into electoral politics. At the time I was a Lecturer in Trinity College Dublin, and also a member of the Irish Labour Party. I had always been interested in politics, and had been active in several (all left-leaning) parties in three countries. But in 1987 I felt the time had come to see if I could put any votes where my mouth was, and so in the general election of that year I stood for one of the TCD seats in the upper house of the Irish Parliament, Seanad Eireann (the Senate).

There was a general consensus amongst my family and friends that this was a truly rotten borough. As all Irish readers of this blog will know, Trinity College graduates elect three Senators, the same number as are elected by graduates of the National University of Ireland (which has three times the number of graduates). Other graduates don’t get to vote for anyone at all. While TCD Senators have often made huge contributions to political debate and public life, it would be impossible to defend the system with any objectivity.

Indeed, not only was it a somewhat strange constituency, it was a totally weird election. It was clear to almost everyone (to be fair, including me) who the three successful candidates were going to be: Mary Robinson (outgoing Senator, who was shortly thereafter to become President of Ireland), Shane Ross (also outgoing Senator) and David Norris (a noted gay rights campaigner, who in fact went on to become a very distinguished member of the Senate and who has been an important voice of reason, tolerance and culture in Irish public life). But I pressed on anyway.

There emerged, from left field, a candidate who upset everyone’s peace of mind. He was in fact someone I knew well, having been in the same class as him as a student. He was a solicitor called Ben Rafferty, who stormed in using modern canvassing tools, had assembled a cohort of supporters to assist him, and who was wholly brash and ambitious. For much of the campaign everyone wondered whether he might make it. In the event, he didn’t.

All of us had to cope with this most unusual electorate, who were scattered all over the world. The only way to reach most of them was by writing to them. All candidates received the names and addresses on the register, and a free mailshot to them. This may have been ‘free’ in the sense that it involved no payment of postage, but it was still very expensive: we had to print an election address (in the days before easy and cheap desktop publishing), buy envelopes and address them. I was running the campaign on a very fragile shoestring, and depended heavily on a small number of friends (one of whom reads this blog) and family to write and stuff envelopes. Even with all that, I think I only managed to reach about a third of the electorate.

I did however get some phone calls from potential voters; one of these rang me several times, each time telling me he would not vote for me, the stated reason being that he ‘hated dentists’. He always hung up immediately after saying that, so I was never able to assure him I wasn’t a dentist or ask him why he thought I was. A very sweet sounding lady from Peterborough in England rang to tell me she would vote for me if I could get the local council to put up proper street lighting on her road. It was an insane waste of my scarce campaigning time, but I did write to the council, and copied my letter to her; and I very much doubt that they paid any attention at all.

But the highlight of weirdness came in the form of the man who called me to complain that I was impersonating him – I declined to get into a conversation with him, so I never found out what was driving him, but from his expletive-laden conversation I don’t think my impersonation of him was very true to life.

Readers of this blog may already have guessed that I was not elected, though I am proud to say that I did get a good vote for a first time candidate; I was advised by a veteran ex-Senator at the count that if I persevered I would certainly be successful the next time. Alas, there was no next time, because at the subsequent general election I already knew I was bound for a new job in England. But the 1987 campaign was enormous fun, and was one of the highlights of the more public part of my life. And it allowed me to inhale the exhilarating oxygen of glorious failure, on which so much politics is based. I highly recommend it.

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12 Comments on “My life in politics”

  1. Ultan Says:

    “Strange constituency”? It’s a Rotten Borough!

    Every election it’s the same from the TCD candidates and emcumbents – “yes, yes, so unfair, we’ll bring forward legislation to reform the Seanad so that DCU, etc., are represented….” and so far we have seen … exactly diddley squat from any of them once elected.

    Not that the NUI crowd are any better (I have votes in both TCD and NUI constituencies).

    Thats said, I am not entirely satisfied if DCU and the others – as institutions – are any worse off without direct representation – judging by the historical performance of the “university” panel and their role in furthering the cause of third-level education in Ireland…

  2. Dan Sullivan Says:

    A timely post given that we’re another year one from another announcement from yet another minister that reform is just around the corner. Still, there is some old saying I believe about a drop of water wearing away a stone.

  3. Wendymr Says:

    Yes, that was quite an introduction to the tedium that is much election campaigning; I later graduated to similar envelope-stuffing and canvassing for the British Labour Party in Stoke-on-Trent, where I’d even hazard a guess that the electorate was possibly more intelligent 😉

    And you remind me: I don’t think I’ve received a ballot for a Seanad election in years…

  4. conorreidy Says:

    TCD is a rather odd constituency in comparison to the rest of Irish constituencies. Sean Lemass’s grandson ran, and lost, during the 2007 campaign, hardly surprising but generally indicative of the type of electorate that Trinity represents. Frankly with each passing decade the reason for which it was established (De Valera’s wish for a unionist voice in the Seanad) diminishes. I really do hope Mr. Gormely reforms the third level representation upon the Senate.

  5. Ultan Says:

    I should declare my interest.

    I was part of the “team” I suppose that helped get Norris elected. My job (shared, and paid) was to type in that stupid hard copy printout of voters into a datbase for further mailshots, etc. I had the keys to his house on the Northside and would dutifully march over there and sit down in front on a PC loaded with Ashton Tate Dbase III (I think), reading the list and plunking away on the keyboard. He had a crazy housekeeper at the time who regarded the PC as some kind of evil beast that needed to kept in a locked room in case it escaped and rampged down O’Connell Street when nobody was there. I remember thinking at the time when I was entering all this critical data – “Gosh, there’s an awful lot of Unionist-sounding names here with addresses in the north of Ireland who graduated from TCD pre 1970.” However, I think the basis for having representation for such a constituency is long gone in post-peace process Ireland, and was also probably wrong in the first place.

    Later I switched my allegiance and material support to Ivana Bacik (and er, also availed of a graduate dinner opportunity in the Dail restuarant with Shane Ross, which was very entertaining given it was two days after the Lisbon Referendum).

    All that said, this corporatist Seanad nonsense with seats for a select few needs to be reformed, badly.

  6. Dan Sullivan Says:

    Wendymr, if you’re NUI I can check the register as it was for the 2007 and tell you if you’re still on it and what address they have for you.

  7. universitydiary Says:

    Wendy is a Trinity graduate…

  8. Ultan Says:


    Ivana has a blog? Everyone’s at it now…

  9. Wendymr Says:

    Thanks, Dan and Ferdinand. I’ve emailed the TCD Alumni office – the link for the Seanad electoral roll is dead – to ask how I can update my information. Most likely explanation is that I never let them know I moved 3000 miles from my last known address!

    Ah – just checked Ultan’s URL. I’ll use one of those addresses, then – thank you!

  10. Dan Sullivan Says:

    I’m not being petty, ok maybe I am a bit, but I’m not sure it is a blog if all she is doing is cutting and pasting her contributions to the Seanad into a post. That’s all on the Oireachtas record as it is.

    And just a note Ivana made no mention of reform of the university panels in her campaign nor does she mention it on her site even now. I can understand that from the perspective of not wanting to tick off those in TCD who might vote for you, but it does strike me that she is one of those people who asks for problems to be addressed provided it doesn’t cost her anything directly. In the measure of the world’s problems legislating for the 7th Amendment is quite a minor thing, but if you can’t do right on the small stuff when it might cost you a vote what credibility can you claim for leadership on the big issues?

  11. Ultan Says:

    If you search on the internet you’ll find that Ivana *has* called for reform of this institution, including calling on the Govt to adopt the 2004 report on reforrm (;

    “The electorate should comprise *all* graduates of institutions of higher education in the State holding a primary degree or an equivalent award at level 7 in the National Framework of Qualifications.”

    Plus, on the site (

    “Reform of the Seanad election system is long overdue, and I have consistently argued for change to make it more democratic. ”

    However, that’s a discussion you need to have with Ms. Bacik.

  12. Dan Sullivan Says:

    Ultan, I looked over her site both at the time of the election and before posting and there is no mention of it – it is just not there – under any of her headings. The latter link you post just quotes her as saying that she has called previously for it but there is nothing on her site where she actually called for it. Sort of the “I did do that didn’t I” for the modern political age.

    As you say it is something to take up with the good Senator. After all, if Sen. Mullen can find the time to draft legalisation I’m sure it’s not beyond a Reid Professor of Law to knock out something suitable.

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