Trooping into the Hyde Centre (which, by the way, is really showing its age!), we were not at all confident that Roscommon (and East Galway) could deliver yet again.
Roscommon has a remarkable record of producing fascinating – often truly dramatic – election outcomes. That is seldom much fun for nervous candidates, but it is part of our history, and a tribute to our political astuteness.
As an electorate, we are ruthless, unpredictable, unforgiving, willing to reward where applicable…most of all, we are never to be taken for granted.
We listen, we watch…and we wait. We wondered about last Friday. We had endured a dull campaign and it looked like we might produce a dull election. But the Hyde count of 2016 was not about to distance itself from history.
The grand tradition, with its unapologetic twin effect of making heroes and heartbreak, would continue.
The secrets emerge
The big man, Fitzmaurice, won nearly 10,000 number ones and stormed home in what was his first ‘proper’ national election (his breakthrough came in the 2014 by-election).
A performance such as Fitzmaurice’s would often have been a worthy headline act. But there were two other big shows in town… I passed the count centre at around 7.50 am (I had dropped family members off at the train station in Athlone, if you must know why I was up so early). At 7.50 am, the secrets of the ballot box were still safe.
Soon, cars began to arrive. Counting began at 9 am and shortly afterwards the secrets began to reveal themselves, in instalments. Denis Naughten was rampant. Sinn Fein were doing well, but not nearly well enough. Michael Fitzmaurice would be fine. Shane Curran would not threaten the goal. The fate of Murphy and Hopkins was an unfolding, interlinked story.
Naughten didn’t just win the race; he destroyed the field. As noted previously on these pages, his is the slickest, most sophisticated campaign machine. It is a machine.
The candidate himself is a force to be reckoned with; the quality of the team behind him makes Naughten untouchable just now in Roscommon politics. No stone was left unturned by the Naughten camp, not unless it made more sense to leave it unturned.
From social media to traditional media to interaction with people on the doorsteps, nothing was left to chance. The Naughten camp outfoxed the Fitzmaurice camp – and all others.
Longest evening of their lives
With the re-election of both Naughten and Fitzmaurice not in doubt, all attention was on the third seat. It was a long day at the count centre. The first count results arrived at about 7 pm.
Ireland had just been counted out by England at Twickenham.
Spectators who had taken a break in the afternoon began to reappear in the Hyde. So many of them familiar faces. Stalwarts of elections past. Familiar poses adopted. Heads lean over the barrier. Smiles are exchanged with the counters, but the smiles of the party hacks are frowns-in-waiting…should things go wrong. It is both exciting and nerve-wracking.
The tallymen and women stare and stroke, tiny pieces of the jigsaw shuffling into place. From early on Saturday, Fianna Fáil were confident that the great coup could happen.
Later, there were gasps when the first count revealed Murphy to be a single vote ahead of Hopkins. It must have been agony for Maura and Eugene. The longest evening of their lives. The others, who had the courage to run, were not to last the distance.
Claire Kerrane, as an election debutante, did well, winning over 3,000 first preferences. On the evidence of her impact over recent months, Sinn Fein have unearthed a great prospect.
John Kelly knew that he was playing into the wind. With due respect to this passionate Roscommon man, wearing the Labour colours doesn’t do it for the electorate here. He’s like a person turning up at a party who is politely refused entry just for producing the wrong pass. I don’t think we’ll see him in the Labour colours again, but who knows, he may line out as an Independent some time in the future, in some electoral setting.
John’s sister, Anne Farrell, running for Renua, expressed disappointment with her vote (520). Eddie Conroy polled well enough to suggest that he could contest Council elections with some confidence.
The election of Denis Naughten was enthusiastically celebrated. It’s his fifth successive triumph in a national election. It may be his sweetest. I didn’t witness the moment, but as Naughten was raised on the shoulders of supporters, Frank Feighan stepped forward and held out his hand in congratulations.
A euro for their thoughts… Feighan was an interested observer, so too ‘Ming’. Paddy Kilduff and John Keogh were even seen having a laugh, with former councillor Michael McGreal a no doubt bemused third party.
Later, with Murphy on the verge of victory, a very gracious Ivan Connaughton came in with his father, the irrepressible Martin. By now, there were enough cast members present to make a classic political soap opera.
After a bit of a stand-off from their base in Hannon’s Hotel, ‘Team Fitzmaurice’ arrived in the Hyde Centre. The word was that Deputy Michael had said he wouldn’t attend unless his supporters were allowed in.
‘Fitz’ got his way and his supporters celebrated his re-election with an infectious joy.
Still Murphy and Hopkins waited…prisoners of the people.
Rollercoaster stops at ‘Promised Land’
After the various eliminations, and the division of surplus votes, it came down to the transfers of Kerrane and Curran. By now, long after midnight, Hopkins had moved 823 clear.
There was a glimmer of hope for Fine Gael, and Fianna Fáil activists were noticeably nervous. 2 am came and time ticked on. It was a cliff-hanger.
Then, a ripple of excitement on the floor – amongst the Fianna Fáil faithful. The latest tallies were in. Apparently their man was receiving a huge transfer from Curran.
After all the controversy and comment, Shane Curran was having a significant impact on Election 2016. The Fianna Fáilers were beaming now, hugging, embracing, giving the media a thumbs-up.
The atmosphere was special. They surrounded Murphy. When the news was confirmed just after 2.30 am, they held him aloft, and for Eugene Murphy, it was the most emotional of moments.
A rollercoaster that had been rolling for thirty-one years had just stopped at the ‘Promised Land’.