7 June 2017
20 years ago this week – Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin is elected as Sinn Féin TD for Cavan/Monaghan
‘16 years ago, we had Kieran Doherty TD. Now we have Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD,’ said Gerry Adams, remembering the last republican TD for Cavan/Monaghan
By Brian Campbell RIP, reporting from the count centre, June 1997
AT 2:50pm on Saturday, RTÉ was still saying that Sinn Féin would “possibly” be fighting for the fifth seat in Cavan/Monaghan. But, almost four hours earlier, the Sinn Féin tally had shown that Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin was headed for a landslide victory.
The Sinn Féin tally was carried out on two small tables under the stairs in the count centre in Cootehill Comprehensive School.
The tally people counted the Sinn Féin preferences as each ballot box was emptied, marked on a tally card and the cards handed to runners who brought them to the tally table.
Every few minutes, Caoimhghín would arrive and with the flourish of a lucky poker player throwing his cards on the table he would ask:
“What was the target for X?”
“98 votes from three boxes.”
“Well, will you take 103 from one box?”
And the card was thrown triumphantly on the table.
It was like that for two hectic hours. At one stage a Fine Gael tallywoman fainted but the count continued unabated. Like a scene from one of those old cowboy films, she was taken away and her place at the circled wagons was taken by another volunteer.
By 11am it was clear that Caoimhghín would top the poll.
A phone call came through from the prisoners in Long Kesh –they were among the first to know about the historic victory.
The Sinn Féin team surged from the count centre to jubilant scenes outside. Gerry Adams arrived and was swept into the cheering, flag-waving crowd. In radio interviews, both he and Caoimhghín talked about an important breakthrough.
Then Gerry Adams whispered to Pat Treanor, the Director of Elections:
“Is your tally accurate? Because if it isn’t, there’s going to be some red faces about.”
Pat laughed, just a little nervously.
“We’re safe enough,” he said.
Inside the hall, the other parties looked a little bewildered. “We’re only lending you the seat,” one Fianna Fáil tallyman said. “That’s what the SDLP said and look what happened to them,” said a Sinn Féin worker.
The result wasn’t announced until 4:30pm, by which time one side of the count centre was jam-packed with Sinn Féin supporters waving dozens of Tricolours.
Outside, dozens more had climbed up to get a view through the high windows. Caoimhghín stood at the rail with three of his daughters, Pat Treanor, Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Lucilita Bhreatnach
There was a hush while the numbers were read out.
“Ó Caoláin – eleven thousand, five hundred and thirty-one . . .”
And his supporters erupted in cheering and flag waving.
“And I declare Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin elected . . .”
And, for the first time, Caoimhghín allowed himself to celebrate. He punched the air, then hugged his daughters before he was engulfed by supporters and swept out of the hall.
“One TD and two MPs, doo-dah, doo-dah,” sang the crowd as the two MPs carried the TD shoulder-high. Later, they stood together on a low wall and addressed the hundreds of Sinn Féin supporters.
“Sixteen years ago, we had Kieran Doherty TD. Now we have Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD,” said Gerry Adams, remembering the last republican TD for Cavan/Monaghan. Hunger striker Kieran Doherty died a few weeks after being elected in1981 and his memory had been everywhere during the campaign.
Caoimhghín told the crowd that they were the foundation on which the victory had been built.
“We have emboldened the republican tradition,” he said. “We in this constituency have faced censorship and state oppression but we have held our heads up high and we have faced them down and today we have had our victory.”
Martin McGuinness said he was “overjoyed to be here today. This is a remarkable breakthrough. Over the last two months we have broken the mould of Irish politics. My greatest joy is that our victories were all-Ireland victories. Our opponents talk about trains leaving stations but if we aren’t on that train it is going absolutely nowhere.”
Caoimhghín and his supporters then set off on a cavalcade which took them through Cavan and Monaghan. In Monaghan town, a crowd had gathered in Church Square. Caoimhghín stepped out of the car to greet them.
Everywhere, hands were reached out and he was hugged as he walked up the street. It was a scene of unconfined joy.
For those republicans who had marched and held vigils, who had been imprisoned and seen pain and suffering, this was their victory.
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