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.