General view of the Athlone and Moate LEA vote verification at TUS Athlone

Analysis: Voters were waiting with open arms for ‘Boxer’ Moran

If, as many politicians believe, the electorate are waiting in the long grass, then in the case of Kevin 'Boxer' Moran this time they were wielding only garlands and warm embraces.

His astonishing vote-getting performance shocked political observers, the other candidates, and probably even the Moran campaign team itself.

There was never any doubt that a former Government Minister would take a seat on his return to local politics and many expected he would top the poll. That he would do so with such a landslide was beyond most expectations.

It would seem that a significant cohort of Athlone voters felt Moran was hard done by in the last general election, and regretted the decision to leave Athlone without a TD based in the town.

The controversy over what was seen as the blocking of Boxer by other councillors, when he sought to be co-opted to the council after his son Jamie resigned, was also a factor.

The huge vote he received has a number of immediate ramifications, not least that it propels the former Longford/Westmeath TD and Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works right back into the frame for a general election run.

The momentum is undoubtedly with the Coosan man – and he will probably be hoping that Taoiseach Simon Harris heeds the pleadings of his backbenchers and calls a swift general election to capitalise on Sinn Féin extraordinary woes.

On the other hand, Moran's resurgence to the pinnacle of local politics has meant that others, including the Fianna Fáil duo of Frankie Keena and Aengus O'Rourke, may have to park any Dáil ambitions.

It was always a very long shot that Fianna Fáil would run an Athlone candidate in a three-strong ticket for the next general election. But the reality is that both men will now know that the general election after next, whenever that may be, is a more likely route.

Of course, the goal of any politician is to be elected, so both Keena and O'Rourke will be pleased to have been returned to the council with credible displays. And it must be said their respective votes held up well in the face of the Boxer surge.

However, in their quieter moments, after an intense five years of work as sitting councillors, they may be a little deflated at the carpet being pulled from under them by the returning Moran. There was little they could do, though, in the face of such a swing.

From a wider perspective, despite predictions of a huge volatility and a fracturing of the vote, the centre of politics cemented its grip locally, and, to an extent, nationally.

The outgoing Athlone electoral area had three councillors from the old two political pillars, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, as well as an Independent and a Green Party councillor

It now has four of the same councillors, although the Independent is now a member of a party (Independent Ireland) with the Green Party's Louise Heavin replaced by 'Boxer' Moran, himself, a former Fianna Fáil councillor.

Heavin has a point when she says there is a need for more diversity. However the electorate has the final say – and it remains to be seen if it reassesses the situation in the next general or local elections.

The Greens suffered particularly badly in the midlands, with Hazel Smyth in Mullingar and Mark Hackett in Offaly also losing their seats. The party's representatives were not helped by carbon taxes, the perception of a slow pace of the Just Transition process, the party’s difficulty nationally in explaining the extent of the climate crisis, and the traditional tendency of the voter to punish the smallest party in a coalition government.

That Paul Hogan took a seat after being eighth in the first preference vote is another landmark feature of this election. Of course, Boxer's haul of 39.6% of the valid poll entirely skews the percentage share of the other candidates. But still, for a candidate with 3.2% of the first preference vote to be elected is remarkable. Hogan proved attractive to transfers throughout the electoral area.

His own circuitous political career, from what would have been seen as the progressive wing of Sinn Féin, to a link up with Boxer's short-lived Independent Alliance in the last local election, to sitting on the Athlone Municipal District of Westmeath County Council as Independent, and then to the newly-formed Independent Ireland may, ironically, have proven to be a help in securing transfers.

It was interesting that Hogan received a significant chunk of 'Boxer' Moran's surplus in the second count, a count one observer dubbed the real first count, despite Hogan having stepped in to replace Jamie Moran on the council.

It put him ahead of Cleary and Heavin and ultimately they could never quite catch up as Hogan continued to attract transfers from across the spectrum. His share of Keena's surplus catapulted him into the fifth spot, ahead of Dowling-Linehan, and a strong transfer from the Irish Freedom Party sealed the deal for Hogan.

His decision to run in both Athlone and Moate areas seemed to leave him open to accusations of trying to have his cake and eat it, but the electorate clearly didn't think so, or at least enough of them didn't for the Castletown Geoghegan resident's sake.

Independent Tom Cleary may be disappointed to miss out but, on his first foray into organised politics, to have come so close to winning a seat was a commendable performance.

Suggestions that Cleary might damage John Dolan proved unfounded, and the Fine Gael man strengthened his vote, though the weakness of his running mate, Ruairi Keyes, may have seen him attract a larger share of the party's first preferences than in other elections.

Timing is everything in politics, and the political tide turned dramatically against Conor Dowling-Linehan in the last few weeks, with Sinn Féin hemorrhaging support at alarming levels. In such a context, he was always swimming against the current. Sitting councillors in a local election have the huge advantage of having built up an array of voter/clients – and it's extremely difficult for a first-time candidate to break that grip.

It's also not clear that the Sinn Féin movement has used the last few years as the main opposition party, and with a TD in the county, to build up a strong organisation in this area.

The Irish Freedom Party's Catrina O'Donohoe's showing was somewhat better than anticipated, and her votes were key in the destination of the final seat.

Attention will soon turn to the balance of power on Athlone Moate Municipal District. Fianna Fáil find themselves in an identical position as last time. They have four councillors from nine, and need just one more to control the council in this area.

Last time around, Louise Heavin was the extra name – this time, Paul Hogan seems favourite to be approached, as one would imagine Fianna Fáil would be loathe to allow 'Boxer' Moran strengthen further his already robust political base.