Sunday 19 November 2017

Lise Hand: Bittersweet victory for Helen – bitter defeat for Labour

New Meath East Fine Gael TD Helen McEntee with her mother Kathleen (left), sister Sally (centre) and brother Vincent (back) at the count centre in Ashbourne
New Meath East Fine Gael TD Helen McEntee with her mother Kathleen (left), sister Sally (centre) and brother Vincent (back) at the count centre in Ashbourne

Bittersweet. That's the word Helen McEntee reached for to describe the torrent of emotions which surely coursed through her as the Meath East baton passed from her beloved father's hand into her own.

But there were no tears as the newly-minted TD stood on the stage, surrounded by her family.

"You had faith in dad, and I'm delighted that you had faith in me," she said to the crowd of supporters and Fine Gael deputies, senators and members who had streamed into the GAA hall for the declaration of the final count. "If I'm half the TD that he was, I'd be happy."

Applause rose from the crowd. But it was a low-key kind of acclamation, not really the jubilant celebrations which would normally break out when a government party bucks the trend and wins a by-election.

This was simply because a Shane-shaped shadow had hovered over this contest. Less than three months after the tragic death of Fine Gael junior minister Shane McEntee, his 26-year-old daughter followed in his footsteps on the wintry campaign trail, around Nobber and Dunshaughlin, Ashbourne and Dunboyne.

She hadn't spoken publicly about her late father throughout the almost month-long campaign, but last night she paid him a tribute.

"Obviously we're here today because our darling Shane – dad – is not. So it's a bittersweet day," she said.

Her voice faltered, but she summoned a smile.

"I look forward to working for the people of Meath East," she concluded.

From the moment she had arrived into the hall with the Taoiseach for the last count, she had been enveloped in hugs.

She was hugged by Enda, by Simon Coveney, by her mother, Kathleen, by Frances Fitzgerald, by her brother, Vincent.

She and Enda were swamped by photographers and reporters, who all wanted to capture how she felt, who looked for a crack in her determined poise. In fact, it was the Taoiseach who spoke with the faintest glint of tears in his eyes.

"In many ways, it brings a conclusion to a very sad period in their life," he said.

"Having got to know Helen over the short period in the last number of years, she will not betray the spirit of her father."

On the other hand, Simon Coveney isn't given to displays of emotion, but the face of the Agriculture Minister was wreathed in smiles.

He has become close to Helen – he too won his seat after the sudden death of his father, Hugh. When Helen came to visit his office after Shane died, he urged her not to rush into a decision to run.

"Your first instinct when someone you idolise dies is to try and do them proud," he said. "I told her not to feel bounced into a decision."

He admitted he was normally "cool as a breeze" about elections, but he had lain awake the previous night worrying about the outcome of this one.

"It brought back memories of us as a family. It's both a happy and sad day, which is how our family felt at the time," he said.

Fianna Fail was reasonably happy, but careful not to appear too chipper.

"This doesn't mean FF is back is business," said a circumspect Micheal Martin when he arrived into the hall with second-placed Thomas Byrne. "We're in a new political situation."

Sinn Fein put a brave face on the result, though many expected the party to benefit far more than taking 13pc of the vote.

Labour was left doing the Stations of the Cross. No Good Friday for the junior party of government which was crucified by the electorate of Meath East.

It couldn't even put a brave face on its dismal showing.

Its candidate – or whipping-boy – Eoin Holmes appeared briefly, ashen-faced, to thank the workers.

It was a grim exit for Labour. Nothing sweet about it, just the bitter ashes of defeat.

Irish Independent

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