Just past 8 am on Saturday morning last there were at least 100 people around the Dr Hyde Park GAA Centre in preparation for the count. The people had spoken. The 132 boxes were piled up and ready to go. Returning Officer Mary Raftery arrived and soon we were all piling in. Counters, and count staff, tallymen and party people, and of course the media.
I have covered at least 10 election counts and they have not changed one little bit in terms of how it’s done, but the huge difference nowadays is the proliferation of media. You have local newspapers, local radio, national radio, TG4 and TV3 and RTE TV. But the biggest change of all now is that you have Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and all the other instant media fixes, and there were people there to keep the nation informed as to who was doing what in the constituency of Roscommon-Galway. I counted 28 laptops in operation at one stage!
Ciaran Mullooly was back on familiar ground, covering the count for RTE TV. Shannonside, Ros FM, Galway Bay FM, Mid-West, Radio na Gaeltachta, TV3 and Newstalk were also there as were all the local newspapers in Roscommon and Galway. Even the Western People were represented. Ballaghaderreen man Patsy McGarry of the Irish Times also took up residence for the day.
Anyone who knows the stage at the Hyde Centre will know that it is about the same size as your average living room. Into that small space, representatives of all the above organisations were situated along with a mountain of equipment. Over 50 people working side by side for over 16 hours. It is day that you get to meet people in the industry and have a chance to chat. In the end I was 17 hours there and so were many of my colleagues.
From the beginning of the tallies it was clear that Denis Naughten was streaking ahead at the top of the field, with Michael Fitzmaurice coming in second. Two other things then became increasingly clear. The addition of Shane Curran on to the Fianna Fáil ticket did not work for him, but it was to be a huge help to his running mate Eugene Murphy later on in the day. It was also clear that the final seat would be between Fianna Fáil’s Eugene Murphy and Fine Gael’s Maura Hopkins.
Candidates were thin on the ground before lunch, however party workers and tally people beat a path to the small office at the front of the building where Tom Leech and his people were providing us all with the eagerly-awaited tally figures. They do a great job. Then at 12.45 we had a final tally. Denis Naughten had turned in a spectacular performance and would be elected on the first count. Michael Fitzmaurice (only 15 months in the Dáil) would be elected comfortably while the battle for the last seat between Eugene Murphy and Maura Hopkins was confirmed.
Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan was there, Senator Terry Leyden too, and most of the county councillors were also present. As we got close to the announcement of the first count, some votes were rechecked, which held up the process. Ireland were playing England at Twickenham and were not doing well. We could catch a glimpse of the match on a laptop nearby.
Frank Feighan, who had decided not to run this time, was there chatting and looking relaxed now that his political career was over. Senator John Kelly and his sister Anne Farrell, both candidates on Friday, were also there. It was not their day.
Then the first count. Denis Naughten, his wife Mary, family and supporters arrived in the hall. He was more than 2,000 votes over the quota. He was lifted high, amid cheering and chanting, and then came into the media area where he did numerous interviews, one after another. After 19 years in the Dáil he had pulled off a remarkable victory. He said that it was the responsibility of the politicians to form a Government.
“The people will have a strong answer at the doorsteps if we have to go back to the country in a few months time”, he said. Then he was gone – prompting the start of the celebrations.
Further down the list, there was one solitary vote between Eugene Murphy and Maura Hopkins. The mother of all battles was ahead for them both. Both are fine people. One would go home ecstatic and one would go home devastated. That’s politics.
The evening turned into night, Ireland had been beaten and now we were watching Dublin play Monaghan in Croke Park. It looked like a good game too. The big question now was: Would the count be over on Saturday or would we be back on Sunday? I had planned to go to Cork to see Roscommon play the home team on Sunday morning so I was praying for a finish on Saturday night, regardless of at what time.
At one stage it looked like we would not get finished, but in the nature of these election counts things speed up as the night goes on. As the candidates with low votes against their names were eliminated, Michael Fitzmaurice edged towards the quota of 11,421. His huge cohort of supporters eventually got into the count centre after a short delay and there were major celebrations as he was elected on the 6th count, following the elimination of Eddie Conroy. Then it was to the media for another exhausting round of interviews with TV, radio and newspapers.
“I will be ready to talk to anyone about the formation of a Government, we have to be responsible. We have to do everything in our power to try to form a Government”, he said. This was his third election in the space of 18 months. He turned in a superb performance, attracting almost 10,000 first preference votes after only being a little over a year in the Dáil.
Then, more good news. Returning Officer Mary Raftery told us that she would keep counting until the seats were decided. Fianna Fáil people were becoming increasingly confident as the night went on. It was clear that the votes of Sinn Fein candidate Claire Kerrane and Shane Curran would decide the last seat – and so it transpired. Shane transferred almost 1600 votes to Eugene and when he got over 550 from Claire Kerrane, Maura’s goose was cooked. The announcement was made at 2.37 am. Eugene Murphy was a TD. There were ‘Oles’ sounding out as his supporters and family celebrated wildly. Many years of intense disappointment in politics were washed away and a new era now dawned for Eugene.
After 31 years as a county councillor, after many ups and downs in his political life (and there were more downs than ups) he had made it. I worked with Eugene for many years in Shannonside and I know him personally. He had tears in his eyes when he spoke to me in the media area.
“I thought my chance had passed to be honest but I said I’d give it one more try.”
Politics is a very cruel game but once in a while nice guys actually do win. I have to say I’m thrilled for him.
At 3.09 am I left the Hyde Centre exhausted but pleased to have been present as another chapter in the story of the local political world was written. I hope that Denis Naughten and Michael Fitzmaurice don’t mind me saying this, but this was the election in which Eugene Murphy became an overnight success…after 31 years!
Oh, and by the way…I got up early on Sunday morning and travelled to Cork. Despite being so tired, it was one of my better decisions. It was a momentous weekend. The big question is: Will we be back counting votes again before the year is out? I hope not!