A Decade Ago, A Different Political Game – Athlone Local Elections 2004

It was a local election like no other remembered.  In 2004 Fianna Fail were at an all time low in the polls, Sinn Fein was reaping the benefits, and Fine Gael and Labour were just holding their own.  But with the Athlone Town Council’s elections, nobody knew what would happen, or if any of the eight outgoing councillors would lose their seats.  The result, ten years ago, was a surprise that would have made most local political watchers lose money in the bookies.

Independent Cllr. Breffni Rowan left Athlone Town Council that summer, after a nineteen year stint.  He had done much for soccer in Athlone, which helped him get elected in 1985.  Breff supported Fianna Fail in many mayoral elections, and  lived on the west side of town, and he also came from a Labour party background, with his grandfather being a Labour councillor.  So therefore it was too hard to judge where his votes would go, but the money was on his votes electing a Labour councillor, which would be the council’s first since John Henson left in 1999.

The other eight councillors; Fianna Fail’s, Cllr. Kieran Molloy, Cllr. John Butler, Cllr. Frankie Keena, Cllr. Egbert Moran and Cllr. Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran, Fine Gael’s Cllr. Nicky McFadden and Cllr. Mark Cooney, and Independent member, Cllr. Austin Berry were all seeking re-election.  However there was also thirteen other candidates made up of  Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Labour, Sinn Fein, Green party and many Independents.  In reality they were all hoping to win Breffni’s seat or to take out one of the five Fianna Fail councillors.

The introduction of Electronic Voting to the election had all candidates on edge, even the Fianna Fail ones despite their public support for the new system.  However six weeks before the June 11th election, the then Minister for the Environment, Martin Cullen pulled the plug, (pardon the pun) on electronic voting, due to questions raised by the Electronic Voting Commission on the system’s software.

So from early April the canvassing began in earnest.  Posters decorated the streets of the town, and candidates and their election literature began to appear in doorways.

Frankie Keena
Frankie Keena
Nicky McFadden TD
Nicky McFadden TD

It was beginning to seem more and more likely that one of the Fianna Fail councillors would lose his seat, but most pundits rated Cllr. Kieran Molloy and Cllr. Frankie Keena as being solid safe.  It was also believed that the Cooney name mightn’t be strong enough to hold Cllr. Mark Cooney, because his vote had dropped by 146 first preferences from the 1994 to 1999 local elections. Independent Cllr. Austin Berry, despite his popularity, was always deemed as a there or thereabouts possibility to either win or lose the election.  Nobody doubted that Cllr. Nicky McFadden would top the poll, considering her 1999 poll-topping, and her 2002 General Election vote.

However there were also many high-profile big names in the race for a seat on Athlone Town Council.

Sheila Buckley-Byrne
Sheila Buckley-Byrne
Mary O'Rourke
Mary O’Rourke

Fianna Fail’s Sheila Buckley-Byrne had been just 13 votes from eclipsing Boxer at the end of the 1999 count.  Her early canvassing and having the support of the then Senator Mary O’Rourke brought many to think she would go all the way this time.

Fine Gael brought unsuccessful 1985 candidate, Kevin O’Brien on board, and in the intervening years he had built up a successful business in town.

Patsy Beaumont, who had been an Athlone Town Councillor from 1985 until he retired in 1999, made a canvass comeback, and seemed set to take the westside votes left vacant by the departure of Breffni Rowan.

The Labour party ran four candidates – union rep Denis Rohan, who had unsuccessfully stood for Co. Westmeath in 1999, Jim Henson who stood as an Independent for the town council in 1999, and was the cousin of the previous Labour councillor, John Henson.   Westside businessman, Ray Lennon, whose late father Jimmy, was a Fine Gael councillor.  They also put up Morgan Fagg, who was Vice President of AIT Students Union.

Austin Berry and Paul Hogan
Austin Berry and Paul Hogan

Sinn Fein was originally seen as a non runner, because of Athlone being a garrison town, and with the 1999 candidate getting just 92 first preferences.  However this time round, they had Maynooth student, Paul Hogan, who came from two prominent Athlone and Garrycastle families, and with the national popularity that the party had gained – it wasn’t outside of the realm of possibility that the party would take its first council seat.

The Athlone Health situation with the introduction of the Hanly report had got much press coverage, and its main high profile candidate Betty Kelly put herself up before the electorate in June 2004.  Betty Kelly was a member of a highly respected St. Patrick’s Tce., Athlone family, and she had been a member of Fine Gael for three months in 1999 when she ran unsuccessfully for the election that year.  She left the party afterwards saying she was unhappy that the party hadn’t fought the Athlone Health issue, and she became an Independent candidate.

There were other candidates as well, and the final number stood at 21, all looking to be placed anywhere in the nine spots on the list, after the election was over.

Three nights before the election, the council met for its last time, and a presentation was given to Breffni Rowan for his nineteen years of service.  On the night Breff said that he hoped that all eight remaining councillors would be returned, and that there would be just one new councillor in his place.  But this would not be the case.

When the day of reckoning, June 12th, arrived – the candidates and their supporters headed for the beginning of the long count at the Athlone Institute of Technology.

The first tallies showed a blueprint of how things would pan out for the new council.

It seemed like Sinn Fein’s Paul Hogan would take a seat, probably at the expense of Fianna Fail’s Frankie Keena.

The first count revealed that fact in true numbers.  Hogan got a high first preference, and the Keena vote collapsed from his 1999 success.  Nicky got almost a quota and a half, and Boxer shaded a quota.  John Butler surprised the pundits, by raising his personal first preference by approximately 160 votes.  Egbert Moran and Sheila Byrne were close in votes, with the possibility of only one of them getting a seat.  Austin Berry’s first preference vote also rose, but it did seem likely that he could lose to another candidate.

Mark Cooney dropped about 50 votes, but it was probable that Nicky’s high vote would elect him, and possibly Kevin O’Brien.

The Labour party didn’t do a strong showing, with only Ray Lennon, a far way ahead of their other three candidates.

As the hours went by the big names kept falling. But Nicky and Boxer were elected first, and many of the low vote candidates were eliminated.

The biggest surprise of the night was more the elimination of Frankie Keena, rather than the election of Paul Hogan.  Austin Berry benefited from many transfers, following the elimination of all the other Independents.  Mark Cooney did gain many of Nicky’s surplus, as did Kevin O’Brien.

With Frankie gone, there was less likelihood of Fianna Fail holding five seats, so the final fight in that party was between Egbert and Sheila, with Egbert holding the lead through most of the counts.

One by one, Rohan, Fagg and Henson of the Labour candidates fell with Ray Lennon proving to be the victor.  Fine Gael lost the possibility of getting a third councillor when Kevin O’Brien fell, but he did save Mark Cooney, and propelled him into being fourth councillor elected.

The main vote catching Independents, Kelly, Beaumont and Behan were each eliminated, but boosted Austin into being the only non-party candidate elected.

At the last minute just like in 1999, Fianna Fail’s Sheila Byrne was eliminated – this time she was a mere 19 votes from a council seat.

The final result came at around 3 am, although it was put under question, by the revelation of discrepancies at the early part of the count.  An entire recount took place on Monday, June 14th, but it didn’t make any difference in the personnel elected.

As elected they were: Cllr. Nicky McFadden (FG), Cllr. Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran (FF), Cllr. Kieran Molloy (FF), Cllr. Mark Cooney (FG), Cllr. John Butler (FF), Cllr. Egbert Moran (FF), Cllr. Paul Hogan (SF), Cllr. Austin Berry (Ind) and Cllr. Ray Lennon (Lab).

As the years went by, there was many political changes in Athlone.  Nicky McFadden was elected to the Dail in 2011.  Boxer left Fianna Fail in 2011, and became a high profile Independent.  Sheila Buckley Byrne left Fianna Fail in 2009, and was elected as an Independent that year.  Kieran Molloy will retire from politics in 2011.  John Butler, Egbert Moran and Ray Lennon lost their council seats in 2009.  Austin Berry stepped down from the council before the 2009 Local Election.  Also in 2009, Jim Henson was elected for Labour.  The town council will be abolished later this year, and Boxer, Cooney, Henson and Hogan will be attempting to win seats on the new and much smaller, Westmeath County Council.

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