New Beginnings For County Councillors

Due to the abolition of the town councils, many newly elected councillors have found themselves in a different political situation since the Local Elections. The new large numbered councils make up eighteen, or twenty, or twenty-five councillors, or even more in the case of Dublin. Previous town councils numbered an average of nine councillors.

The seven new Athlone municipal councillors experienced life, Mullingar style at their first council meeting last week. The seven are part of a twenty person council. A joint alliance of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael members will run Westmeath County Council for the next five years, with FF’s Paddy Hill (a councillor since 1974) becoming Chairman.

The newly structured county council has a greatly reduced Labour membership, with just two members down from seven before the Local Elections.  Westmeath is the main heartland of Labour (outside of Dublin) and poll-topper, Willie Penrose TD. Sinn Fein have three members, led by Athlone’s Cllr. Paul Hogan. Previously they had none. Hogan was SFs Longford/Westmeath by-election candidate, and got 7,548 first preference votes.

The council have two Independent members, poll-topper Cllr. Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran, and newcomer, Cllr. Michael O’Brien, both of the Athlone Municipal district. Interestingly Boxer and O’Brien are former Fianna Fail members, and Boxer recently got 5,629 votes in the Longford/Westmeath by-election.

In the packed visitor’s gallery, Westmeath TDs, Gabrielle McFadden and Robert Troy watched proceedings and their party councillors interacting.

Fianna Fail sat in an eight seat bunch, close to the two Labour members. The five Fine Gael councillors sat across from their new allies. The three Sinn Fein members sat with just one seat between them and the two Independent members.

Former Cathaoirleach, Cllr. Peter Burke (a two-time FG General Election candidate) remained in the chair to allow the new regime get started.

The Fianna Fail members proposed and seconded Cllr. Hill. It was looking like the vote would be unanimous, until one of the new Sinn Fein councillors, Una O’Neill Darcy proposed Cllr. Hogan for the chair. It was seconded by their colleague, Cllr. Sorcha Clarke.

A vote ensued, and Fianna Fail and Fine Gael en-block supported Cllr. Hill, as did Labour’s Cllr. Mick Dollard, while Cllr. Hogan was just supported by his Sinn Fein colleagues. The Athlone Independent members abstained in the vote, as did Labour’s Cllr. Johnny Penrose.

Hill was successfully elected Cathaoirleach, and he took his place at the top table.

In congratulating the new Cathoairlach, Cllr. Hogan said that some people in the chamber weren’t born, including himself, when Cllr. Hill was first elected in 1974.

“You are joining a sinking ship, that is Fine Gael, and we’ll cross swords, and that chair should have been divided across members, but I wish you well in your role,” said Cllr. Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran, to the new Cathaoirleach.

Athlone did get the Leas-Cathaoirleach role, when Cllr. Frankie Keena was chosen by his Fianna Fail colleagues and by Fine Gael members, and by Labour’s Cllr. Dollard. He was proposed by Cllr. Daly, and seconded by his Athlone colleague, Cllr. Aengus O’Rourke. O’Rourke (son of Mary) got 8,910 first preference votes at the by-election.

Sinn Fein’s Cllr. Hogan proposed his colleague Cllr. Clarke for the role, and Cllr. O’Neill-Darcy seconded.   The ensuing vote had fourteen votes for Keena, and Cllr. Clarke got five votes, which included support from the two Independents.   Cllr. Penrose abstained on that vote.

“It’s my third term in the county council, and I’m honoured to be chosen as Leas Cathaoirleach, and we’ll have a tough five years ahead of us,” said Cllr. Keena.

The various council committees were divvied out to the members, with most of the roles going to Fianna Fail and Fine Gael members, who by then were the leading alliance on the council

As the inaugural meeting of Westmeath County Council came to an end, Cllr. O’Brien accused the two main parties of a “power grab,”, and said that he witnessed a great display of greed and unfairness.

Longford/Westmeath By-Election Overview

It was only ever going to be Gabrielle McFadden’s election, but there was a possible chance of Fianna Fail’s Aengus O’Rourke picking up enough transfers to make it to the Dail. However that didn’t happen, and McFadden took her late sister, Nicky’s seat in the Longford/Westmeath by-election on May 23rd.

Nicky McFadden was an extremely popular Fine Gael politician since the late 1990s. She worked her way up the ranks, town council, county council, Seanad Eireann to Dail Eireann in the 2011 General Election. However shortly after that success, Nicky was diagnosed with Motor Neuron disease, and died on March 25th, this year, at the young age of 51 years.

The Local Elections was just around the corner, set for May 23rd, and Taoiseach Enda Kenny took the initiative of moving the writ of the by election to fill the late Longford/Westmeath TD’s seat, on the same day as the Locals.

A number of Independents declared immediately and a battle royale took place in Fianna Fail between their Westmeath and Longford branches. Basically, Longford wanted to have their own chance of getting a TD. Even after FF headquarters in Dublin agreed to have an Athone based candidate, the Longford delegates continued trying to have a FF candidate added from their area. Eventually Aengus O’Rourke was chosen, son of Mary, and Athlone Town Councillor since 2009.

The only considered candidate for Fine Gael was Nicky’s sister, Gabrielle, a town and county councillor since 2009.

Sinn Fein’s Paul Hogan has been on Athlone Town Council since 2004, and fought two General Elections, strongly increasing his vote each time.

Labour wasn’t sure of their footing, and toyed with the idea of not contesting. However when they saw the field increasing with Independent and Sinn Fein candidates, they decided to put up the high profile Cllr. Denis Leonard. Realistically Labour knew that they could not get Deputy Willie Penrose’s high vote of around 11,000 plus. However they also did not see the low vote that was on the cards for them.

Longford had their own Independent candidate, James Morgan, as did Mullingar in Brian Fagan. Athlone had two Independents, John McNamara and Donal Jackson, both of whom declared early.

In the final days before the deadline for candidates, Athlone’s Cllr. Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran declared. Boxer is no mean politician, and was first elected to Westmeath County Council in 1999. In 2006, he famously challenged, (albeit unsuccessfully), Mary O’Rourke for the FF nomination for a General Election. He left FF before the 2011 General Election, and ran as an Independent, gaining 3707 votes.

When the result was called, McFadden topped the poll with 12365 votes. Interestingly, O’Rourke, Hogan and Boxer all came in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th at first count, and remained that way throughout each subsequent count, until they were each eliminated, and McFadden became the victor.

It’s difficult to assess and compare the Longford/Westmeath by-election with the previous and indeed the future General Election, because the Fianna Fail vote was in disarray. It was against probability that the FF vote would decrease from around 11,000 plus to almost 9,000 in three years. However there was a 55.69% turnout at the by-election as opposed to a 66.95% at the General Election.

The Sinn Fein vote percentage doubled from 7.54% to 15.4% in the three years, which about mirrored the party vote throughout the country on the day.

The Labour vote bombed at 3,290, and Denis Leonard even lost his council seat in the Local Elections.

The Boxer vote almost had a vote percentage double, but not quite. He went from 6.44% to 11.49%.

However it was only going to be Gabrielle McFadden’s day. But the future is not so certain in Longford/Westmeath for Fine Gael. At the moment they have 2 TDs, McFadden and James Bannon in Longford. FF has Robert Troy in Mullingar and Labour has Willie Penrose, also in Mullingar.

Troy will hold and could top the poll at the next General Election. Penrose will be one of the few Labour TDs in the country to hold, due to his history and good organisation on the ground in North Westmeath. Fine Gael will more than likely hold Bannon. So who else will make it? Well it will depend on how much the Sinn Fein, Fianna Fail and Independent vote continues to rise. Gabrielle McFadden is ahead of the posse in South Westmeath but the other contenders to the throne are already trying to catch up.