Election Drama 1957

by mariocorrigan on May 12, 2007

Leinster Leader 22 March 2007


Election drama as Kildare goes to the polls – a half century ago.



The recent debate over electronic voting centred, at first glance, on concerns that the technology did not sustain the kind of trust that a voter needs in the mechanics of the election process. But it was hard not to conclude that there was great sentimental attachment to the time-honoured way of running Irish elections where the drama of the long counts has become a kind of national institution. And in a matter of weeks there will be another instalment of election ritual when the nation goes to the polls for General Election 2007.  Fifty years ago there was certainly no shortage of electoral drama in count centres throughout the nation and none more dramatic than the Kildare constituency.

The Leinster Leader edition in General Election week, March 1957, reported that there was excitement in the count centre at Naas Town Hall as soon as the tallymen glimpsed the first votes: ‘practically from the moment the first few boxes were opened Mr. Sweetman and Mr. Harris were fighting a neck-and-neck battle.’

Four candidates had contested the 1957 election in the three seat constituency. Bill Norton of Labour, Ger Sweetman of Fine Gael, and Tom Harris of Fianna Fail were the sitting candidates. The outsider was the second FF candidate, Patrick Dooley from Athy.

The close nature of the contest was evident from the fact that all four candidates polled within 700 votes of each other out of a total valid poll of 26,769.  Bill Norton reinforced the strong Labour tradition in the Kildare constituency by topping the poll and exceeding the quota. Also over quota on the first count was Patrick Dooley who had clearly mobilised wide support across south Kildare against the sitting trio who were all clustered around Naas.  This was to be the major story from the Kildare constituency, the newcomer from south county overtaking his FF party colleague Tom Harris who was an institution in Kildare politics.  But for a moment it looked as if an even more dramatic political outcome was to unfold with the possibility that FF might take a second seat at the expense of Fine Gael. As the count went on tension heightened among the tallymen with the margin between Harris and Fine Gael’s Ger Sweetman razor thin. The first count had begun at 2.30pm and continued until 7pm; Norton and Dooley were declared elected as stated. But all eyes centred on the ballot bundles of Sweetman and Harris which were differentiated by the narrowest of margins.

The Leinster Leader’s election correspondent reported that ‘when the count was about to be resumed at 8.15pm, Mr. B.O’Mahony, election agent for the FF candidates, demanded a re-check and a re-count.’ At that stage there were only 29 votes between Sweetman and Harris. The recheck did not alter the order of the candidates so the returning officer, Mr. P J O’Neill, proceeded to the distribution of Norton’s surplus.  Out of an even 400 transferable votes, the Labour man’s transfers went strongly to Fine Gael’s Sweetman dragging him above the quota.

 Thus the result of the 1957 General Election in county Kildare yielded no political change with one Labour, one FG and one FF being returned.  However in personal terms it was the end of an era with Tom Harris bowing out from the seat which he had held for 26 years.  His political rivals paid due tribute. Labour’s Bill Norton was reported as saying ‘It was not his business to feel concerned for the welfare of other parties but at the same time he would like to express his personal regret that Mr. Harris had not been elected.’

No doubt such magnanimity will be called for again as political futures are won and lost in the General Election about to happen fifty years on from those heady days of  1957.

Compiled by Liam Kenny from the rich resource of the Leinster Leader files, Local Studies Dept., Kildare County Library. Series No. 8

The fourth instalment for March from Liam Kenny’s Leinster Leader column, ‘Nothing New Under the Sun,’ looks once again at the 1957 General Election. Our thanks to Liam

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