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.

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