Marathon man's patience is finally rewarded
They came in anticipation, in search of further invective, another ill-judged diatribe. But they were to leave disappointed.
The person who had not just dominated local, but also national, discourse was carefully managed, chaperoned throughout, her every syllable audited and appraised before public consumption.
Not that it mattered. Because ultimately, Verona was relegated to the sidelines, a distant third behind two of the county's most beloved sons, those pre-election controversies a mere footnote in someone else's success story.
It may have been for all the wrong reasons but on Saturday last, for at least a few hours, Wexford was the epicentre of the Irish political landscape. A first by-election since 1945 might not have captured the attention of the general public, but for the national media all roads led to St. Joseph's Community Centre, the venue they felt was most likely to see blood spilled, heads roll, tears spent.
Before any of that though, before anything approaching drama could seep out of those infernal pigeon-holes, they, like everybody else, had to wait, and wait, and wait. Because this was something no one told us about by-elections, the thing that all those who endured the last one some 75 years ago, neglected to pass on to the generations below: They are incredibly boring. At least when it comes to the count. Unlike the locals or the generals where there's multiple races, multiple winners and multiple, frequent counts, a by-election consists of just one race, one winner and a lot of waiting.
Someone must have known though because the low turnout (35%) in the polls was reflected in the centre itself where, in truth, there were more staff than onlookers, more people tallying the votes than people peering over the railings for a closer look. This was a low-key, one for the purists, the hardcore, and, of course, the local councillors. Whether there to support their party colleagues, plot their own insidious futures or for the sheer love of it, they ensured it wasn't a complete death march. Resplendent in their civvies, and wearing none of the weariness of those in contention, these lads were in their element, totting up the numbers, making their predictions, their genuine enthusiasm for the game almost endearing.
I say almost because by 4 p.m. we, the ones who were actually working, were still awaiting the result of the first count, still waiting for something, anything to report on.
Oh yes, there had been a moment or two of excitement; Verona's arrival, the accompanying fanfare and the austere presence of Charlie Flanagan by her side; there was the van outside opening for business and the lovely smell of chips permeating the building; and the news that Liverpool had raced into a two-goal lead at Anfield - personally I didn't find that last one so exciting but to each their own.
Then finally we were thrown a bone, all of us, both nationals and regionals, eating from the same rusty trough: A count. The first count. Malcolm ahead, well ahead of Verona, George a close third and then the rest. Everyone wrote down the numbers, compared them, oohed a bit, aahed a bit, and then went to down to assess the mood. And sure they were only all delighted. Well, nearly all of them.
Malcolm hadn't arrived yet, he was probably off running a marathon somewhere, but he was surely grinning through the pain. George seemed happy. Verona? No one could tell, she had to run it by Charlie first. Johnny Mythen wasn't just happy, he was buoyant, buoyant no less. Jim Codd was his usual jovial self and Karin Dubsky was waxing lyrical about the wonders of democracy. Where were the tears, the heartbreak? If everyone was going to declare themselves content at this early stage then we could all go home early.
It was left to Cinnamon Blackmore to bring some normality to proceedings, her declaration that, in light of Verona's high number of first preferences (9.543), this could only be seen as a 'sad day' for Wexford politics reminding us there were winners and losers here. The other two to bow out on the first count were, unfortunately, nowhere to be seen; Melissa O'Neill leaving early so she could take down her posters and Charlie Keddy still stuck in 2018 campaigning for a No vote.
Then the waiting resumed, the doomlords, the cynics warning us it'd be midnight before we'd see someone elected - the ghosts of '45 having whispered it to them in a dream the night before. So when, just 30 minutes after the first count, we heard the tip-tap-tap of the microphone, the clearing of one's throat, we sneered at those negative nancys and their erroneous predictions; the second count was already here, we'd be home in time to watch The Irishman and Match of the Day.
"Could the owner of the vehicle with the registration 192 D…."
A collective groan went up, followed by mutterings about some big-shot from Dublin and his 192 car coming down here and taking all our spaces. That bloody motorway should never have been built.
Some time later, and after three more car-owners were told to get the hell out of here and never come back, the actual second count came. It offered little in the way of surprise, less in the way of hope. Someone had been eliminated, someone else had stretched their lead. No one cared.
Then Malcolm came and all was well again. Ever the diplomat, he advised everyone there 'was a long way to go yet' while he simultaneously accepted the congratulations of everyone in the building. He was then whisked off to be devoured by the national media; so long Malcolm, we hardly knew ye. Thankfully he survived, which was more than could be said for Johnny and Karin, both eliminated on the third count, giving the room a much-needed boost as it became clear we were in the final straight, down to the final three; Malcolm, Verona and George. At this point there were over 1,400 votes separating the latter two, not quite a chasm, but a gap which didn't seem surmountable, even for the bauld George.
Then the rumblings began. The whispers. We had a dead heat. Between Verona and George. The Mayor of Wexford who up to this point had been a picture of calm, suddenly became quite animated, conferring with his allies, scrutinising the scraps of paper pushed into his hand. 'He's up by 20,' someone said.' 'No, it's by 40,' said another. 'There could be a recount,' laughed Pip Breen. Oh please God no, not a recount. Anything but a recount. When the final tallies had been made there was 71 votes in it, George had leapfrogged Verona. But where was the Fine Gael candidate? Off requesting a recount? No. Mercifully, and with great grace, she accepted her third place. Leaving the two lads to battle it out and the rest of us dreaming of De Niro, Pacino and three-and-a-half hours on the sofa.
With Verona's sizeable quota to be shared out between the two lads, and a belief that maybe George would receive the majority of those votes, there was, for a nanosecond, a brief moment in time, the prospect of Mr Lawlor staging one of the unlikeliest of comebacks of our time. But those were put to bed a short time later when the Fianna Fáil crew, minus Malcolm, minus Lisa McDonald, began to assemble in one corner of the room. Dutifully we followed them over, only to be caught in traffic as they changed their minds and relocated to the other side of the room - a rogue basketball hoop, and the prospect of it damaging the new TD's crown forcing their decision.
But where was he? This new TD of theirs? At the Farmer's Kitchen apparently. A fine place to be. Summoned from his stool he returned post haste, smiling and content, accepting more handshakes, more pats on the back, as he strode into the loving arms of his most ardent supporters. And there he remained, like a kid on Christmas morning, waiting for it to become official. Shortly thereafter it did so and up he went, hoisted aloft, not a basketball hoop in sight, only cameras and smiles, pumping fists and shining eyes.
Summoned to the stage Deputy Byrne accepted the applause and immediately went on the offensive, his words providing the perfect book-end to what had been an an unusual, occasionally tumultuous period in Wexford politics: 'Racism and the language of hate and division has no place in Wexford politics. Wexford is better than that,' he declared. And there to listen to these words, having been ushered to stage-left as the third-placed finisher, was Verona Murphy. Her own words were bland, without note. And one feels they will have to remain so if she is to reappear at this grandest of stages any time soon.