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The finest of margins

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MEMORIES Michael Holmes (left) and Frank Leneghan chat with The Mayo News in Mulranny. Pics: Michael McLaughlin

Twenty years on, Frank Leneghan and Michael Holmes look back on the famous local election where only 0.02 of a vote separated them

Edwin McGreal

Friday, January 22, 1999, Doherty's Bar, Mulranny
The Mulranny Comhairle Ceanntair of Fianna Fáil meet in Doherty’s Bar in the tranquil west Mayo village. Two lifelong members of the party are battling for a nomination for the upcoming local elections.
One is IFA man Michael Holmes from Tiernaur, the other is Frank Leneghan, a 37-year-old farmer from the tiny village of Tarsaghaun, deep in remote Ballycroy.
The result comes in and just one vote separates them, 15 votes for Leneghan and 14 for Holmes. It would not be their last close battle.
Leneghan went on and made it onto the Fianna Fáil ticket while Holmes, eventually, decided to stand as an Independent.
Frank Leneghan: “We met on the campaign and we never fell out. I had tea in this man’s house when I canvassed the house and vice versa. Naturally enough not for a number one!”

Friday, June 11, 1999, polling day
Holmes and Leneghan both vote early, Holmes in Tiernaur Hall and Leneghan in Shranamonragh NS in Ballycroy. After that they went around different polling stations, bumping into each other at Tonragee in Achill in the afternoon.
Throughout Belmullet Electoral Area, 7,289 people left their homes to vote for nine candidates on the ballot paper, not knowing that every single stroke, first preferences and beyond, mattered.
Similarly for the 4,085 people who did not vote. It was a new area – Mulranny, south Ballycroy, Achill and Tiernaur moved from Westport Electoral Area in with the rest of Erris, which had parted from the old Killala Electoral Area.
With no sense of how tight it was going to be, Michael Holmes was at Tiernaur Hall when polling closed on the dot of 9pm.
Michael Holmes: “Two girls arrived at a minute past nine and the door closed. They both came to vote for me, one from Cork and she picked up another girl in Galway on the way home.
“They were very disappointed after driving that length but got caught with the traffic on a Friday evening. I said ‘ah don’t worry girls, it’s not going to come down to a vote’.”
In Ballycroy, Frank Leneghan got what he reckons was his first good night's sleep in weeks after a tough campaign. He would need it for the weekend that lay ahead.

Saturday, June 12, Count Centre, Royal Theatre, Castlebar
Belmullet Electoral Area Count 1

Electorate: 11,374; Total Poll: 7,289; Quota: 1,439
Cosgrove, Cllr Padraig (Ind) 448
Coyle, Gerry (FG) 1,014
Holmes, Michael (Ind) 789
Kilbane, Cllr Pat (FG) 1,155
Leneghan, Frank (FF) 615
McAndrew, Ian (FG) 1,014
McNulty, Michael (FF) 618
Mullarkey, Tony (Ind) 199
Quinn, Tim (FF) 1,339

FL: “When the figures for the first count came out, I did think I was frigged. Fine Gael people were saying they would take three seats and Tim Quinn would take the fourth for Fianna Fáil. They were saying I hadn’t a hope. Sure they nearly had three quotas between their three candidates.”
MH: “I didn’t rightly know how I was fixed, I was depending on what other people were telling me but I didn’t think I would get enough of transfers to take a seat.”
More pressing for Frank Leneghan though was avoiding early elimination. With no candidate over the quota, the first two to go were going to be Bangor Independent duo Tony Mullarkey and Paddy Cosgrove. Cosgrove, a former Cathaoirleach of Mayo County Council, suffered an unforeseen fall in support.
Leneghan had benefitted from those eliminations, leapfrogging Achill-based Fianna Fáil running mate Michael McNulty, who was next to go.
Watching on nervously was Michael Holmes.
After the first count he headed Leneghan by 174 votes. Before McNulty’s elimination that was pared back to 126 and the distribution of the Achill man’s vote would be crucial.
Holmes did well, taking 91 votes but Leneghan picked up 212 votes, meaning it was now going right down to the wire. The Ballycroy man was just five votes behind Holmes.
Tim Quinn and Pat Kilbane had both been elected by this stage. Their surpluses would normally be considered negligible but not here.
The fifth count saw Leneghan take 13 of Quinn’s surplus and Holmes taking five. Now the Ballycroy man led for the first time, by three votes, 941 to 938.
The sixth count was the distribution of Kilbane’s surplus of eleven votes. Whoever was bottom after this count would be eliminated.

Sixth count, distribution of Kilbane’s surplus
Coyle +1, 1,218
Holmes +6, 944
Leneghan +4, 945
McAndrew +0, 1,129.

Just one vote lay between them. Less, in fact, 0.02 of a vote thanks to the quirks of proportional representation. See News page 20 for a thorough examination of just how fine the margins were.
MH: “It was very late on the Saturday evening and, of course, naturally, I had to call for a recount.”
FL: “Oh, of course, I’d have done the same.”
Pat Kilbane: “I never thought my surplus of just 11 votes could cause such a furore. It was an incredible election and shows what the proportional representation system can throw up.”
Word filtered around the county of the scarcely believable situation of just one solitary vote separating Holmes and Leneghan. In Tiernaur the two girls who missed the polling station by one minute were out socialising on the Saturday night and when they returned home, their parents told them the unthinkable.
MH: “Oh I thought we’d have to get counselling for them, genuinely. They would have been 19 or 20 and they’d be friends of my own family. It was several people that told me they were in a bad way. The poor things thought it was them alone but it wasn’t just them. A lot of people missed it and I’m sure they missed it for Frank as well.”
Sunday, June 12, Count Centre, Royal Theatre, Castlebar
MH: “It was hard to think straight. It was heavy stuff. There was a match in MacHale Park on the Sunday and if someone asked me who was playing, I wouldn’t have been able to tell them.”
Mayo beat Roscommon by 11 points en route to a Connacht title. If it was tight drama you wanted that Sunday, it was to the TF you went and not MacHale Park.
MH: “Everyone was glued to it.”
Holmes had legal representation in Aidan Crowley while Michael Browne and John O’Dwyer were working for Leneghan. It was a contest that was being watched from the Taoiseach’s office.
FL: “Bertie Ahern rang me on the Sunday and said whatever I wanted, don’t be afraid to ask for it.”
Padraig Hughes, Returning Officer: “It was very tense. As a Returning Officer you are quite content if a recount is called where five or more votes separate candidates. You are confident that gap won’t be bridged. But when it is this small, it is another story.”
Had they been level, Holmes would have survived on account of having more first preference votes.
The recount found some anomalies and the quota ended up being reduced by two but still the same minuscule gap separated Holmes and Leneghan.
Padraig Hughes was not happy though. It was too fine a margin. He ordered another recount for the Monday.
PH: “Michael Holmes could have called for a recount and would have been entitled to but I didn’t want to put him in the position of calling for a second recount so I thought it fairer for me to do it.”
FL: “The tension was something else. Myself and Michael and Ian McAndrew were all in it. We never drank more coffee and tea. We were all in it together. Whatever was going to be was going to be.”
By this stage matters had crystallised in every other count. If Leneghan took the seat, Fianna Fáil would have a majority on the council for the next five years. The importance of the result grew substantially.

Monday, June 13, Count Centre, Royal Theatre, Castlebar
FL: “I left home on the Saturday, stayed in Newport with Frank Chambers (Fianna Fáil councillor) on the Saturday night and stayed with my sister on the Sunday in Westport. It was before ATM cards were common and I had run out of money by the Monday! It was three hard days up there with late pints a lot of the time. The sister said ‘no bother’ and gave me money to get me by.”
MH: “That Monday was a fine day. I’d say it broke all sorts of records for people listening to Midwest on the transistor radios in the bog all over Mayo!
“People often said to me it must have been awful waiting three days for the result. It wasn’t that comfortable surely but I always said ‘remember, it is better waiting for a result in the TF than it is waiting for one across the road in the hospital.”
Legal advisors came down from Fianna Fáil on the Monday. Holmes knew he was taking on the establishment of Irish politics.
MH: “When it went into the Monday the heavy-weights were brought in from all angles.”
FL: “There were barristers and solicitors coming out of everywhere.”
Holmes was definitely outnumbered in terms of legal eagles but the matter all came down to the counting of the votes by council staff at the count centre.
FL: “They were marvellous. You had to praise them, how well they did. It was very tough on them.”
MH: “They were drained by it all too.”
PH: “The second recount 100 percent held up the outcome of the first recount, in every respect.”
Leneghan still was in front by the slimmest of margins.
MH: “I conceded after the second recount. There was no point going on. You could go at it the next day but to what avail? There were people coming up to me saying ‘sure Fianna Fáil must have done a deal with you’! Everything was being mentioned but I just said no, enough is enough.”
It wasn’t the final count and Ian McAndrew of Fine Gael was still in front but the wisdom was he would struggle for transfers and whoever was eliminated after this count would elect the other.
MH: “Ian was a sitting duck really.”
FL: “I’m convinced Michael would have taken the seat if I was eliminated because I got a lot of my votes from down the south part of the area and I don’t think Ian McAndrew would have got many of them.”

Seventh count, distribution of Holmes’ votes
Coyle +96, 1,309
Leneghan +388, 1,333
McAndrew +67, 1,194
Leneghan and Coyle elected without reaching the quota.

FL: “I was delighted. The first ever councillor elected in Ballycroy. The first time on a ballot paper coming from a village called Tarsaghaun where there were only three houses in it. It’s a very small, rural area. People said to me ‘where are you going, you haven’t a hope in the world’. But I said if you never try anything, you will never know.”

Monday, June 13, Nevin's Bar,
Tiernaur
The first stop for the victorious Leneghan cavalcade on the way back to Ballycroy was in Nevin’s in Tiernaur where bonfires were blazing and Michael Holmes was there to welcome him.
FL: “After the result the first man I’d say to shake my hand was Michael Holmes and he said ‘make sure you call to Tiernaur when you’re going down’. Until the day I die I will never forget seeing Michael Holmes outside Nevin’s in Tiernaur, and his family there with him. There was no bitterness.”
MH: “I felt it was important. You couldn’t go blaming Frank Leneghan for me losing by a vote. It wasn’t his fault!”

Postscript
Sunday, June 13, 2004, Doherty's Bar, Mulranny
Five years later Michael Holmes ran again and this time was successful, with Leneghan losing his seat as a consequence. Holmes did not need to remind people of the importance of their vote before that election.
MH: “People would often have said before ‘ah my vote won’t matter’. It has never been mentioned to me again.”
Holmes returned to his home turf a councillor this time around. Waiting in Doherty’s in Mulranny to congratulate him was Frank Leneghan. The very same pub where one vote had separated them for getting on the Fianna Fáil ticket. Matters had come full circle.