Tuesday 6 December 2016

How 'comeback king' Willie won out in Siege of Kenagh

Tom Tuite

Published 05/03/2016 | 02:30

Deputy James Bannon awaits the outcome at the Longford Westmeath Count in Keenagh, Co Longford. Photo: Mark Condren
Deputy James Bannon awaits the outcome at the Longford Westmeath Count in Keenagh, Co Longford. Photo: Mark Condren
A supporter watches the count. Photo: APX
The count in progress at Kenagh. Photo: James Flynn
Willie Penrose with SC for Labour Joe Revington. Photo: Michelle Ghee

It dragged on as if it was the longest ever GAA dinner-dance, where they forgot to organise the music and the caterers.

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But it soon evolved into the Siege of Kenagh, a tense political drama that lasted six days and turned in to the longest count of the 2016 General Election.

The Longford-Westmeath four-seater constituency was expected to be a sleepy example of political status quo, with pundits predicting no change to the line-up of Fianna Fáil's Robert Troy, Labour's Willie Penrose, Fine Gael's Gabrielle McFadden and her party colleague James Bannon.

What unfolded was an election drama that would trump a US presidential campaign. Or at least it felt like it to those cut off from the events of the outside world and locked away in the artificial unreality that is an election count.

Hopes were raised and dashed in the community centre, only to be raised again, and the count saw as many twists and turns as the roads leading into the village.

Tallies closely monitored the count staff's work scribbling down the results, while hundreds of supporters and relatives of the 18 candidates thronged the hall.

Even the counts that dragged into the early hours, or through the night, saw dozens of us going the distance, with one counter lying beside me for a few hours sleep so he would be fit for work the next day.

However, early on in the proceedings - which put the long in Longford - it was clear the commentators had got it wrong. There were going to be big changes.

There was never any doubt about Troy, the outgoing Westmeath TD for Fianna Fáil. By last Saturday, evening he was being hoisted on to supporters' shoulders, who cheered like he had led them to a county championship title win, but it turned in to a nail-biting drama for the remaining candidates.

It was Labour veteran Penrose, who swept into the Dáil as part of the 1992 Spring tide, who was in jeopardy and remained at the centre of a nail-biting drama that dragged on until Thursday morning.

On Saturday he was visibly upset as he conceded defeat to reporters.

A mood of disbelief hung in the air that Penrose's traditional popularity firewall had not shielded him from the ferocious backlash against his party.

But by Sunday afternoon there were tentative rumblings of a resurrection. Could Willie become Labour's Lazarus?

At one stage, he was just five votes behind his Fine Gael rival Bannon, a friend who lives just five miles from him. Joe Revington, senior counsel and one time chief tally for former Labour leader Dick Spring, arrived and began floating along the sidelines; it was only a matter of time before he would make his move.

Revington called out from ringside for a recount.

Eventually Independent Kevin 'Boxer' Moran crossed the line and took the second seat, and his 70-vote surplus was distributed, nudging Penrose back in front, albeit by the slimmest of margins.

Speculation was rife of legal challenges and more importantly, though inaccurately, that the price of tea in the canteen had been inflated to cash in on the cornered market of bleary-eyed candidates, political junkies and party acolytes.

With Penrose back in the game properly by Tuesday night, the brow furrows deepened on the Fine Gael side and the table turned promptly.

Within five minutes, and allegedly that amount of votes between the veteran coalition juggernauts, the Bannon team huddled exchanging worried looks.

It was now their time to ask for the recount.

The Longford-Westmeath hashtag, #ldwd, began trending on Twitter and the constituency's diaspora overseas were tuning in.

Fine Gael's Gabrielle McFadden, from Athlone, was ousted. The result came through on her birthday.

Fianna Fáil's Connie Gerety-Quinn, who got on to the ballot paper as a gender quota candidate, left the stage as determined as she had entered. Manchan Magan for the Green Party went out, as did Independent James Morgan.

Quietly and calmly, Fine Gael's Peter Burke, who had almost been sidelined by his own party, was on course all the time for the third seat.And Labour's stock in Penrose shot through the roof. They now relied on him to save them from relegation to the margins of political debate.

Tánaiste Joan Burton and other Labour survivors Sean Sherlock, Alan Kelly and Brendan Howlin turned up to cheer on their candidate.

The count continued late in to the night and in to early morning.

At 5.30am on Thursday a devastated Bannon - who lost out by six votes - reminded reporters he had 14 days to lodge a court challenge to the decision. Sinn Féin's Paul Hogan was also out.

It was another three hours before the final results.

Burke took the third seat and Penrose, the comeback king, triumphed and took the fourth. It was his sixth time to make a general election victory speech.

"You'd think I'd know how to do it by now," he flustered humbly, as he vowed to help rebuild the Labour party.

He had won his seat "the old-fashioned conventional way". "I knocked on doors, not much advertising, no Facebook, no Twitter, no phone calls and no letters out to the constituents," he said.

"You can win elections in the old traditional way that has served us well since the foundation of the State, and I am very proud of that."

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