Lise Hand

Friday 1 August 2014

Labour's stunned troops pray for the final whistle

Costello raises white flag, Hanafin proves unlikely revivals can happen

Lise Hand

Published 26/05/2014|02:30

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Party representatives check spoilt votes at the count in Castlebar, Mayo. Photo: Kyran O'Brien
Party representatives check spoilt votes at the count in Castlebar, Mayo. Photo: Kyran O'Brien
Green party candidate Claire Byrne who was elected to the local council gets her picture taken in the RDS. Picture: Mark Condren
Green party candidate Claire Byrne who was elected to the local council gets her picture taken in the RDS. Picture: Mark Condren
Election tellers tot up the votes cast on Friday at the count centre at the RDS in Dublin yesterday. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Waterford had just scored a cracking goal against Cork in a Championship thriller which eventually ended with honours even.

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Politics can be like that match sometimes. Closely-fought contests in which one or other team nudges ahead by a point, or where the underdog can sneak a late score against the favoured side and pull a draw out of the hat.

Or every now and then, politics turns into a rout, where point after point drops over the crossbar and goals slam in below it, as the stunned and demoralised losing side run around in circles, wonder how the hell it all went so wrong and pray for the final whistle.

Labour knew it wasn't going to be pretty. They were braced for a kicking from the angry electorate – a succession of opinion polls had flagged that a bad beating was in the post for the party. But the extent of the voters' wrath was breathtaking.

Eamon Gilmore's troops simply vanished from council after council, town, city and county. In Cork the party lost every seat on the city council. Hopes briefly flickered, then died, of holding on to one of their two sitting MEPs, Emer Costello in Dublin, but Phil Prendergast in Ireland South never really stood a chance.

Just before 7pm a brief ragged cheer drifted towards the girders of the RDS before petering out. A few minutes earlier Emer Costello had arrived at the count centre to check out the state of play. The first Euro count had been completed – although no announcement was possible until 10pm when the Italian polling-booths closed – but the Labour MEP was all-but admitting defeat.

Flanked by her husband, junior minister Joe Costello, Emer faced into a gaggle of journalists and cameras. If the tallies were accurate, she said, "I'll struggle to stay in the game – it's a hill too far to climb". Once her exit from Europe was made official, she would "take a little time to take stock".

But she still had full confidence in her party leader, Eamon Gilmore.

A chilly breeze passed through the scrum of reporters and Labour supporters gathered inside the entrance to the hall.

Perhaps it was the final zephyr of the Gilmore Gale – the much-trumpeted Wind of Change which swept the party into government a mere three years ago, before a storm of broken promises returned to blow their house down.

But politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and the Adams Avalanche has rushed to fill it. Sinn Fein stormed through the campaign, harvesting votes as Fine Gael and Labour reaped the whirlwind. At every count centre, the green flags of Sinn Fein waved as candidate after candidate were hoisted on shoulders. They are now the biggest party on Dublin City Council and on South Dublin council.

Gerry Adams strolled into the RDS, sipping coffee and giving interviews to anyone who stuck a microphone under his beard. He had an explanation for their success. "We're rooted, we're relevant and we're Republican," he declared in his version of the 3 Rs.

Moreover, and ominously for the coalition, Sinn Fein are also a fourth R – Ready for the next general election, which might be a heck of a lot closer than the Taoiseach's oft-stated preferred date of Summer 2016. "We started fighting the next election at the close of the polls on Friday," he said. There was a curiously flat atmosphere in the RDS on the second day of the count. On Saturday, in every constituency, count centres had fizzed with the celebratory glee of first-time candidates, gangs of Independents who ran for councils on a wing, a prayer, a cause, a team of volunteers and no campaign funds to speak of.

Some races had attracted more attention than others – in CityWest the much-anticipated showdown for a seat in the Blackrock ward of Dun Laoghaire between Fianna Fail's official candidate Kate Feeney and what could be dubbed their continuity candidate Mary Hanafin fizzled out when it quickly became clear from the early tallies that both women would win seats.

Mary Hanafin arrived for the first count, and bustled around the media-stands. "I've missed you, I've missed you all. It's good to be back," she beamed at the gathered reporters, most of whom would have probably bet their houses a month earlier that a comeback from Frank Sinatra was more likely than one of the former Fianna Fail orchestra who sat on the front bench and fiddled while Ireland burned.

Much of the sound and fury of the count whipped around the Labour bloodbath, the rise of Sinn Fein and the Independents, the part-revival of Fianna Fail and the Lazarus-like return of the Greens.

And all this noise managed to deflect – temporarily at least – the reality that Fine Gael had also been abandoned in droves by a disillusioned electorate enraged by the tin-ear of the senior coalition party which has proved to be inexplicably deaf to the chorus of distress rising from every corner of the country.

The party seemed to be less prepared than Labour for its kicking, and various ministers made stable-door-horse-bolted noises about "listening" to the people who have not just "spoken" but effed and blinded.

Down in Longford at the by-election count – one bright spot for Fine Gael, with Gabrielle McFadden comfortably taking the Dail seat left vacant by the untimely death of her sister Nicky – the Taoiseach conducted a tetchy interview with Newstalk radio. "You don't look for credit in politics and if you do you're a fool," he snapped.

There won't be too much back-slapping going on in the Government Buildings this week – unless one of the hands is wielding a dagger.

Back in the RDS yesterday, Emer Costello hugged her election team who rustled up a small, sad sort of cheer for their fallen comrade.

"We'll be back," she told them. Hasta la vista, Labour.

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