IT was, by any reckoning, a high-octane convention. And many of the 650 or so party members who turned up in Adare on Monday night were not shy as to the reasons why. Competition had raised the stakes, stirred the blood and brought out the numbers.
In the end, youth won out, with sitting TD Patrick O’Donovan and Cllr Tom Neville winning the votes, leaving councillors Bill O’Donnell and Jerome Scanlan in their wake.
But it had been a long journey for all the candidates. For months, the four had criss-crossed the newly formed constituency of Limerick County, making their pitch, looking for votes and high preferences.
And the intense competition that characterised their campaign could be felt in the overflowing convention hall. The place fairly crackled.
But while tension was high, it all remained very polite. The members sat – alert, aware – and listened carefully and respectfully as each of the four candidates made their final pitch.
Cllr Tom Neville was the first to the podium, emphasising his particular blend of youth and experience, both at home and abroad, summing himself up as reliable, realistic and approachable and a man to track down every vote – especially every young vote and every floating vote.
Cllr Bill O’Donnell struck a more sombre note, stressing the need to fight the election on the Government’s record. Secure economic recovery and everything else will stem from this, he argued. And he warned against political instability. If Sinn Fein get into power, they will simply close us down, he said.
Deputy Patrick O’Donovan sprinted through his own record since he was first elected in 2011 and stressed the government’s achievement in bringing the country from the brink of ruin, restoring sovereignty and becoming the fastest growing economy in the EU. And, invoking the party’s founders and its ethos of putting the national interest first, he thundered that Fine Gael was “on the march and we are going back into government”.
Cllr Jerome Scanlan was the last to speak, emphasising his success in securing the highest vote of any candidate in the local elections in Limerick in 2009 and again in 2014 and stressing his business experience. But he also raised concerns over the way the government had dealt with some issues. Irish Water, he said was a prime example of how it should not have been handled.
The speeches took longer than the agenda suggested, and by the time all the protocols had been observed, it was 9.30pm before voting could even begin and close to two hours later before the result was announced.
In between, a raft of speakers was drafted in to address the crowd: Junior Agriculture Minister Tom Hayes who chaired the convention, Sean Kelly MEP, Mayor Liam Galvin, Kieran O’Donnell TD.
And all, to a man, had history on their minds: in particular, the possibility of Fine Gael making the historic breakthrough and finally succeeding in securing a second term in office for the first time since the foundation of the state. The rallying cries came thick and fast along with the exhortations to canvass for victory.
But, as 11pm approached, even the most loyal, the most committed and the most buoyed up were beginning to wilt under the weight of speeches. Old campaigner that he is, Deputy Dan Neville kept his contribution short, responding with modest grace to the tributes paid to him by all the speakers and by party officer David Ward. “People think I have already retired,” he said. “But I haven’t.” He would keep his hand on the wheel until the last.
But despite the late hour, excitement gripped the crowd again as Minister Hayes read out the result: the candidates would be Patrick O’Donovan and Tom Neville.
Roars went up and people surged forward to congratulate the victors, thronging around the two young men who beamed and beamed.
But there were handshakes, too, for the other two men.
When, finally, the crowd left for home, there was a sense of a job well done. Even the disappointed didn’t seem too disappointed.
Now, all they have to do is win the two seats.