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Cover of Jeff Beck's "Tallyman" single

Hiberno-English can be rather different to UK English, with plenty of common words and phrases that you simply won’t find in many an English dictionary.

For a start, there’s “banjaxed”. And “tallymen”

A thing, a device, a yoke – all these can be said to be banjaxed. A system, a political party, an entire country – all these can be banjaxed too.

Then there are sleeveens, gombeens and cute hoors.

And “tallymen”, the unique by-product of an intricate election system based on proportional representation (PR) and the single transferrable vote (STV).

Unlike the UK’s first-past-the-post system and single-seat constituencies, general elections in Ireland have STV and multi-seat constituencies, with three to five seats up for grabs in each constituency. And you can vote for candidates in order of preference: number one to your top candidate, number two to the next hopeful that you prefer and so on.

Thus if a candidate exceeds the quota and is elected, the surplus votes are redistributed among the other remaining candidates, and the second and third preferences and so on come into play. Or the lowest-scoring candidates are eliminated because they’ve no chance of reaching the quota, and their votes are redistributed on the basis of the subsequent preferences. Simples.

So opinion polls and exit polls concentrating on first preferences can give a quick overall picture of the first round of voting, but they ignore all the next stages of the count, where strange things can happen. It’s an incredibly nuanced system, in which a wily electorate does plenty of complex things such as saying:

…and I’ll be giving yer man my number one (first preference) because, fair play to him, he’s not bad, but I know he doesn’t stand a snowball’s, so after he’s eliminated they’ll have to count my number two (second preference), which is for your woman who’s the best of the rest of a bad lot, but she’ll get elected anyway on the second count and she’ll get a massive  surplus, from which my number three will then be going to…

Hence the tallyman (or woman) stands over the ballot boxes as they are opened, pencil and paper in hand, watching the flutter of the counters’ fingers across the barrier, counting the votes to check for fair play and see the state of play – including all these second, third etc preferences and how they might interact and trickle down and so on. The tally sheets are then amalgamated to give a full prediction of the likely outcome from all these chaotic patterns.

Long before a single seat is officially filled, the tallymen – these experts in Irish political Chaos Theory – can give their predictions for each box, which add up to predictions for the entire constituency or even the overall national outcome.

Then after the elections, the parties and political anoraks can “reverse engineer” the results back to the tally sheets for each ballot box, to work out how their candidates did at a local level, down to individual streets.

For example, one candidate in a party might get a first preference from Voter Y. But the second candidate from the same party might get a ninth or tenth preference from the same Voter Y, suggesting that – at least to that voter – the choice of “party ticket” wasn’t great. Or that – as is suggested in my Black Marigolds novel – internal party solidarity is a joke.

With all this valuable intelligence-gathering for subsequent campaigns, you might expect the candidates/parties to be very guarded and secretive about the process. Yet far from it: most of the parties often share their tallies, in a sort of Brotherhood (and Sisterhood) of United Tallypersons.

So in the biggest count centre in Dublin, at the RDS Simmonscourt Hall this morning, you’ll find a high degree of tallyman co-operation between most of the larger parties, including Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Sinn Fein. The one big exception is the Labour Party. As one poster put it on Politics.ie around the time of the last general election in 2011:

Labour extend their overall obnoxiousness even after the votes have been cast. A bit like the player who refuses to shake hands after the final whistle. Of course their non co-operation doesn’t stop them from demanding to be kept up to date on the tally!

There’s a practical reason for the co-operation: space in the count centres can be limited and they have to divvy out the tickets. But something else is going on too: after all the sparring during the campaign, it’s now all over bar the shouting and the fat ladies singing.

So a truce of sorts is declared, a bit like that game of soccer between the British and the Germans in no man’s land during Paul McCartney’s “Pipes of Peace” video.

You might come across other dictionary definitions of a tallyman, such as:

  • Yer man who makes the weekly visits to collect payment for goods purchased on the “never never” (hire purchase)
  • Or a health official who would carry out housing inspections in the middle of the night in days gone by
  • Or a gombeen man – in the sense of a village usurer or unlicensed loan shark
  • Or a person who counts bananas (a slender fruit with a yellow skin that grows in tropical climes), as in “The Banana Boat Song”: Hey mister tally man tally me bananas / Day light come an’ me wan’ go home
  • Or the title of Jeff Beck’s follow-up single to Hi Ho Silver Lining. Now that’s trivia.
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