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midlands northwest

'Sorry Peter': No surprise twists after a weekend of high drama - as curtain comes down in Castlebar

The second longest-running show in the Irish Euro count ended last night – here’s how it all played out.

NORMALLY HOME TO tribute bands, singer-songwriters and, occasionally, 1990s rappers, the Royal Theatre in Castlebar played host to a different kind of show over the last five days as a crowded field of candidates was steadily whittled down.  

Last night, the curtain closed on weeks of campaigning, leaflet dropping and debates for candidates vying for one of the Midlands North West seats in the European Parliament.

The sprawling rural constituency has 12 counties and an electorate of over 1.2 million.

Early on in the count – way back on Saturday – it was expected that the third and fourth seats would be closely fought. However, the competitors dropped off and in the end it was obvious to all present who would spend the next five years in Brussels.

For the first few days, however, two other votes were in the spotlight: the local elections brought people from across Mayo to Castlebar, while between Saturday and early Sunday the divorce referendum result came and went. 

As the council elections played out, tally people scribbled furiously and conferred in hushed tones in corners, hoping to predict the eventual winners. Former county councillors came to watch sons or grandsons elected. As each name was called out, a new person would be hoisted onto the shoulders of the supporters. 

In the end, Fine Gael came out on top winning 12 of the 30 available council seats. Fianna Fáil closely followed with 11. Independents secured six and, in more bad news for the party, Sinn Féin won just one seat.

The first of the European candidates to arrive was Green hopeful Saoirse McHugh on Saturday afternoon. Despite not winning a seat, her journey was arguably the story of the campaign. Her performance on the Prime Time debate the week of the vote had sent her story viral with the RTÉ/Red C exit poll predicting she would receive 12% of first preferences – putting her in third place. It was obvious when McHugh arrived on Saturday that she had been buoyed by these polls saying “it’s hard not to be hopeful”.

That hope waned as the days went on.

European Parliament election Luke Ming Flanagan checks the numbers. PA Wire / PA Images PA Wire / PA Images / PA Images

‘Tally people’ from the main parties normally keep track of the votes from as soon as the ballot boxes open in count centres. 

In Castlebar it was a little different, as independent candidate Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan took on the role of coordinating the tallies with an army of supporters. The first there every day, he would sit in the far corner of the room with his oldest daughter going through sheets of data to predict the eventual outcomes.

Flanagan, who we now know will return to Brussels, gave McHugh a special shout out in his celebratory speech – but it was also he who first broke the news on Sunday that the exit polls had got it wrong about her chances of snatching a seat. 

It was Monday before this was officially confirmed. The first count saw Fine Gael’s Mairead McGuinness flying over the quota with a massive 134,630 votes – nearly 16,000 over.

McHugh found herself in fifth place with independent former Áras candidate Peter Casey hot on her heels.

Flanagan and Matt Carthy (SF), both looking to be re-elected, sat in second and third place respectively. Newcomer and former Rose of Tralee Maria Walsh (FG) was in fourth place. This line-up would remain unchanged to the final day, with all three being elected on the final count last night.

Newcomer Walsh was another story to come out of this campaign. The other three candidates elected were all incumbents – so Walsh essentially secured the seat formerly occupied by experienced independent and former TD Marian Harkin. 

“I am a bit of a realist when it comes to moments like this”, she said at the count centre on Sunday – unwilling to be drawn on whether she thought she would spend the next five years in Brussels.

In the centre, there was a quiet confidence to her supporters. Receiving a large boost from McGuinness’s transfers initially, she continued to be transfer-friendly throughout the count. She received large portions of McHugh’s and later Peter Casey’s transfers.

European Parliament election Independent Peter Casey. PA Wire / PA Images PA Wire / PA Images / PA Images

Wednesday morning kicked off with just Flanagan, Carthy, Walsh, Casey and Brendan Smith of Fianna Fáil left in the race.

There was little mystery in the air, however, as most people expected Flanagan, Carthy and Walsh to be elected later that evening.

The only point of interest would be whether it would be Smith, a sitting TD, or Casey who was eliminated first. Smith had already said that he didn’t expect to be elected, preferring to focus his attention now on the next general election.

Casey had been a notable absence throughout the five days in the count centre.

Perhaps predicting it would be his only win of the week, he appeared just in time to see himself secure more transfers than Smith and thus stay in the race for one last count. He soon disappeared again.

The anticipation built for the rest of the day.

The room filled up with families, friends and eliminated candidates. As a final result loomed, Flanagan changed out of his trusty flannel shirt and donned a white shirt and waistcoat. Cheers went up from the Fine Gael contingent as Walsh took celebratory photos. The Sinn Féin supporters were more subdued, likely still smarting from a disastrous local election.

As the final count was read out, the cheers were too loud to actually catch the numbers. Flanagan, who had more than a few run-ins with Casey during the campaign, let out a shout of “sorry Peter” before taking to the podium for the final speeches. 

After days of waiting, the end was quick.

People streamed out and left the successful candidates to celebrate.

The dismantling of the count centre had already begun before the final results were called out, the Theatre Royal returning to its former self.

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Kathleen McNamee
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