Thursday 18 January 2018

Now lawyers slug it out in Longford at the Battle of Keenagh

Deputy James Bannon (centre) continues the tense wait at the Longford-Westmeath count in Keenagh, Co Longford.
Photo: Mark Condren
Deputy James Bannon (centre) continues the tense wait at the Longford-Westmeath count in Keenagh, Co Longford. Photo: Mark Condren
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

With the possible decommissioning of AK47 in the offing, the big gun himself had to arrive. Alan Kelly walked in the door of the Longford Westmeath count centre at 6.15pm, there to lend support to Willie Penrose - Labour's last man standing.

The magic 'number seven' is needed to grant the party the magic, life-giving elixir of speaking rights. Facing the very real threat of silence, Kelly was tense and on edge.

"Ah hopefully, yeah," he said, when asked if Penrose was going to make it. "I want to see how it's going on," he added, making his way to the pen where the votes of Penrose and Fine Gael rival James Bannon, his fellow party member Peter Burke and Sinn Féin's Paul Hogan were being carefully recounted.

The real big guns were at the top of the room - with senior counsel and election guru Joe Revington drafted in by Penrose, and Kevin O'Higgins, with the same status, for Bannon. At 2am yesterday morning, it was said unofficially that just two lone votes stood between the two men in this most ferocious of battlegrounds - and neighbours of less than four miles apart.

So both had 'lawyered up' - for the first time in Longford since 1964, when local Republican icon Sean McEoin - "the Blacksmith of Ballinalee" and Justice Minister - lost his seat by a mere 12 votes.

Penrose himself had not been seen all day but his younger brother, Johnny - his doppelgänger - was sitting amid great tension by the sidelines while Willie's daughter, Aisling, was acting as her father's eyes and ears.

It was like a funeral, with everyone sitting on chairs along the walls, keeping their conversations low.

One of Penrose's neighbours was jiggling his feet in great agitation and had a crate of buns and a homemade cake by his feet, along with a cannister of coffee. Demolished boxes of Roses sat on each count table, because on day four of this count everybody was living on their reserves - and chocolate.

"They're calling Willie Lazarus because he'd given up on Saturday - he hadn't a chance but by the third day he rose," quipped a friend of the Labour TD, who has consistently topped the poll since 1992.

Ringside, James Bannon was shell-shocked and ashen, unslept for the last five nights by his own admission.

He was sucking, appropriately enough, on a green bookies' pen.

"It's tight," he said, awakening as though from a daze, his eyes on the steady progress of the count staff.

"I don't want to do anything to speculate." Kelly shook his hand - not just party rivals but colleagues.

Later, Bannon darkly said questions would have to be asked within Fine Gael about how Longford had lost a third of the vote to Mullingar, as he had helplessly watched a crucial portion of 'his' vote go to Peter Burke.

At around 7pm last night, the lights of the Keenagh community centre suddenly dimmed.

There was a bit of a flap.

"And no guards around," said one man crossly, as the barristers pored over the ballot papers.

In fact there was a garda down the back of the room, hanging over the railings like everyone else.

With no sign of the finish line in sight, the legal battle of Keenagh stretched into the night.

Irish Independent

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