My Experience Covering the Irish General Election

Tallymen recording votes of candidates. Image: Joseph Okoh.

After months of media buzz and intensive campaigning by both political parties and independents, the day to decide which candidates would form the 33rd parliament (Dáil) finally came last weekend.

I recall, it was only last February, I took part in the Nigerian General Election but who would have thought I would be covering a General Election in another continent exactly a year after. Before now, the closest event to an election I had witnessed outside my country was the Scottish Referendum in 2014 but I wasn’t directly involved.

Things have changed now and this was only made possible by one of Ireland’s top broadcasters, Newstalk who specifically chose Griffith College where I’m currently doing a programme to source for interns. That speak volumes.

I had always wanted this kind of exposure to learn and enhance my CV so I applied and was picked.

Being chosen to partake in the Irish General Election excited me. The opportunity meant I would be covering a major news event and preparing content for live broadcasts in a European country for the first time. Irish politics is different and so too is its voting system. I worked with media organisations in Nigeria during election but was keen to have a feel of how election coverage is done in a different country. Knowing the peculiarity of Irish politics and its complicated voting system, I started immersing myself in political news, keeping tabs with developments and researching as any good journalist would.

For example, unlike in Nigeria where we practice the Presidential system of government, Ireland is a parliamentary, representative democratic republic. Also, when you vote in an election in Ireland, you are asked to give your vote in order of preference. This is because Ireland uses an electoral system called proportional representation with a single transferrable vote (PR–STV, or PR for short).

So, it is not as simple as the candidate with the highest number of votes winning and others losing. If a candidate reaches a certain quota, his/her vote is shared among other contestants yet to reach theirs.  That way, others have a chance too. If a candidate is eliminated after the first round by virtue of scoring the lowest vote, his/her vote is redistributed among other candidates still in the race. I had to understand how the process works to be prepared and productive to Newstalk.

I had applied to be in one of the Dublin constituencies because I thought that was where the action would be but I was also happy to go anywhere really. So, when Sinéad Spain, the Head of News, Communicorp Media; the company in charge of Newstalk and other radio stations asked if I mind changing my coverage area to Wexford, I said yes. Newstalk had promised to handle travel expenses and I love to travel anyway, so it was perfect for me.

Trip to Wexford

I booked a train, departed Dublin for Wexford on election day, Saturday the 8th February at 6: 38pm because my deployment was to the count centre which was to open next day at 9am. I arrived in Wexford at 9:15pm on Saturday. It was very windy and rainy. I boarded a taxi to my hotel and retired for the night.

Count ongoing at St. Josephs Community Centre, Wexford. Image: Joseph Okoh
Count ongoing at St. Josephs Community Centre, Wexford. Image: Joseph Okoh.

On the day of the count, I arrived at the count centre 15 minutes before time and joined Adrian Harmon, the Newstalk reporter I was to work with. We clicked from the first minute (First lesson: having a rapport with your colleague can be very helpful. It would make the job way easier).
I had asked Adrian the tasks he wanted me to do. He said I would need to do interviews using Newstalk’s recording device (he showed me how). Others were supplying information from tallymen/key party figures for use in on-air reports, recording relevant videos, taking pictures and lining up political figures for interviews. I didn’t fret because  Griffith College had prepared me. I did a module called Radio Production and I could relate to many of the things done during production. My experience working as a journalist in my country was also very helpful.

 

Newstalk reporter, Adrian and I
Newstalk reporter, Adrian and I.

After a brief chat, Adrian and I exchanged numbers. That was very helpful as 90% of our communication at the count centre was done through the phone, either through WhatsApp or calls. Adrian was mostly in the journalists’ section upstairs handling the technical aspect and communicating with the newsroom while I was downstairs doing the ‘field’ work.

Tally sheets of some party supporters. Image: Joseph Okoh
Tally sheets of some party supporters. Image: Joseph Okoh.

I enjoyed working with Adrian because he was quite level-headed and maintained calm even when we were under pressure.

The whole experience was demanding but also interesting. The election turned out to be a historic one for the Irish people with Sinn Féin breaking the total dominance of the country’s two biggest political parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gáel. I feel proud to be part of history and more so, to have been part of an exercise that determines the course of direction of the lives of millions. I didn’t have any bad experience.

I wore the Newstalk tag at all times and confidently approached politicians requesting for interviews which they granted.

I really felt welcomed by the people of Wexford. Many of them kept approaching me for chats. They kept asking where I’m from. At first, I felt disconcerted but later figured out it was because of my unique skin colour. Their questions were polite and innocuous so I took no offence whatsoever.

The whole experience renewed my confidence that despite my background and all the odds, I can make it as a journalist in this country.

My Takeaways

If you want to make it far in this industry as an upcoming journalist, you should take note of the underlisted and this is applicable to any country in the world.

1. Never be over confident: I learned that no matter how prepared you think you are, you still don’t know everything. Personally, I had pictures of key political figures saved on my phone but still struggled to recognise them. I had to ask people especially journalists from other organisations who I deliberately made friends with to show me who was what.

2. Ask questions: This is related to the first. I observed how Adrian communicated with colleagues from other organisations to cross-check facts. They basically helped themselves. The job is not always a competition and no one knows everything. If you don’t know anything, ask. Asking doesn’t mean you’re dull.

3. Teamwork: I can’t emphasize this enough. I can’t imagine how the work would have been if there was no teamwork. That was the foundation of all that we achieved. If you ever have issues with you colleagues that you can’t resolve immediately, for the sake of the job, put that aside and get the job done first. Trust me, you don’t want to be the weak link.

4. Deadlines: When you work as a news reporter, you have to think on your feet and be sharp because everything is fast-paced. While interviewing, your ability to identify a clear top line and edit accordingly is a good skill to have. It would save you a lot of time.

I went to Wexford with an open mind and I have learnt a lot from the experience. However, if I would be staying in Europe for a long time, there are still things about the system I need to get used to.

Like I mentioned, elections are quite different in this region compared to what is obtainable in Nigeria. Firstly, I found it strange that a major sporting event like the Six Nations match between Ireland and Wales would be holding on the same day as the polls and both events would be hugely successful. This would never happen in Nigeria. On election days, the country is literally on lockdown. There is massive restriction of movement and commercial activities cripple.

Labour candidate, Brendan Howlin and students of CBS Primary, Wexford during their visit.
Labour candidate, Brendan Howlin and students of CBS Primary, Wexford during their visit.

Secondly, I found Irish contestants to be unassuming and accessible within the count area. They were also thankful for whatever number of votes they got without challenging the process. In Nigeria, politicians are only humble before election and arrogant after victory. They are not accessible and mostly have fierce looking security details around them.

Thirdly, contrary to what many people think, electronic voting doesn’t always guarantee the success of elections because it has its own problems. We’ve had this debate many times in Nigeria and some still insist manual voting/counting should be scrapped as it encourages malpractice.

I found it interesting that there have also been debates on the use of technology in Irish elections in the past . Suffice to say that the Irish General Election was a huge success despite the voting and count done manually.

The jury is still out on the use of electronic voting system in many European countries but whatever form the next election in this region would take in the future, I feel confident in my abilities to take on the challenge that comes with it.

 

Vlog on my Wexford experience:

 

 

 

 

About Joseph Okoh 9 Articles
Nigerian born, London and Dublin trained journalist on a mission to impact the world through his pen and voice. A storyteller who writes about any and everything as it pops up in his head. Skilled content creator, ever hungry for knowledge and lover of travel.