There were two great unknowns going into this election in Longford Westmeath – 1.How badly would Fianna Fail perform, and 2.How well would Labour/Mae Sexton perform.
To an extent, these two questions overshadowed a third unknown – would Fine Gael manage to get a third seat.
With Fianna Fail averaging around 15% in the national polls, it was clear that the party was going into meltdown. What was unclear was how this would manifest itself in the rural constituencies such as Longford Westmeath. Early on Saturday morning in Kenagh, that picture began to emerge.
Political heavyweight Mary O’Rourke was always facing a major challenge to try and keep her seat in this election. The toxicity of Fianna Fail combined with the cluttered pool of candidates in Athlone as well as the fact that she has been an Oireachtas member since 1982 and many people felt it was time for her to go, all mitigated against her. The departure of Kevin Boxer Moran from Fianna Fail to run as an Independent was a body blow to O’Rourke and her team. With Robert Troy selected to run in Westmeath for Fianna Fail, this put O’Rourke under further pressure. Rumours of friction between the two camps were played down but party activists coolly admitted that there was no vote management structure in place here.
O’Rourke, a former Minister and Deputy Leader of Fianna Fail, polled just over 3,000 first preferences, coming in behind her Athlone rivals ( McFadden, 6,129; Hogan, 4339 and the aforementioned Boxer Moran at 3707). This was a dismal showing for Mary O’Rourke and an unceremonious end to a political career that stated in 1974.
However, 36 years in politics certainly toughens you up and the septuagenarian arrived at the count centre with her son where she gave six media interviews in a row where she conceded defeat and spoke of her desire to write her memoirs. She also said she would continue with her media work “so I might end up meeting you again” she pointedly told assembled hacks.
In particular interest to Longford political watchers was the fate of Peter Kelly, the sitting FF TD. The Longford boxes were opened first in Kenagh on Saturday and this gave some indication as to how Peter Kelly would perform. With the tallies predicting he would get around 3,500 first preferences, it was obvious the colourful Fianna Fail TD was about to lose his seat. Kelly would have needed to attain over 4,500 -5,000 votes to be in with a chance (down from 7,700 in 2007). Seasoned campaigners agreed beforehand that reaching the 5,000 mark would be a huge challenge for Kelly but there was hope within the party that his personal vote would hold up.
However a quick analysis of Kelly’s vote shows just how marked the decline was. In Longford town, according to the tallies, he polled around 1,137 on Friday, a huge drop from the 2413 he received in the town booths in 2007.
However looking around the county, it is clear that Kelly had not only lost the town vote but the rural vote had deserted him also. For example in Cullyfad he polled 188 votes in 2007 but saw that tally drop by half in 2011 to 96. In Carrickboy/Ballycloghan, he polled 113 votes in 2011 but that dropped to 58 votes in 2007. This pattern was repeated throughout the county, where he lost roughly half his vote.
Speaking to the media outside the count centre early on the day, he acknowledged that this had been a difficult campaign and that “this is the only hard election I’ve ever had”.
“People were giving me everything only the vote,” he quipped. “They were just being nice to me. It’s neither here nor there and I’d just like to say thanks to the people of Longford Westmeath and in particular the people of Longford who were very good to me and my family all my life.”
It was certainly not all doom and gloom for Fianna Fail as Ballinacragy native Robert Troy proved to be the surprise package of the day. Polling 4,274 first preferences, it was clear that Troy, a county councillor and post master from the same area as Labour’s Willie Penrose, was with a serious chance of taking the last seat. His competition was going to be local rival Peter Burke from Fine Gael and possibly a Longford candidate (Sexton or Kelly). However as the votes were dispersed, Troy picked up a massive 1130 votes from O’Rourke which brought him into the running and he continued to pick up votes along the way, including 644 from Paul Hogan which put him over the line.
If Fianna Fail had been hoping for a fairytale ending in Longford/Westmeath, it was not to be. Its share of the vote dropped from 41% in 2007 to 19% in 2011. However Troy was the knight in shining armour who saved them from complete devastation and scuppered the three seat dream for Fine Gael.