Former Taoiseach Brian Cowen with local Fianna Fail councillors and supporters at the count centre in Mucklagh. Ger Rogers Photo

Eight new faces on changed council

Firstly, the bare facts. The new Offaly County Council is comprised of 8 Fianna Fáil members, 5 Fine Gael, 3 Sinn Féin, 2 Independents and 1 Independent Ireland.

It means both the Social Democrats and the Green Party have lost their sole representation on the council, whilst the number of independents has fallen from five to two.

There are eight new faces on this council, though some of these had experience as councillors prior to 2019, and the fact that four outgoing counciilors (Eamon Dooley, John Carroll, Danny Owens and John Foley) chose to step down accounted for half of the eight newcomers.

But beneath those numerical statements lie a myriad of absorbing threads. Take Fianna Fáil for example. The party secured a remarkable 45% of the first preference vote in the Tullamore area, and was within touching distance of taking three seats in Edenderry. When the dust settled it left the count centres with eight seats, the same as it entered the election with.

The 45% share of the vote in Tullamore was shared relatively equally with less than 350 votes covering all four of its candidates and that meant that Ollie Bryant joined existing councillors Frank Moran, Tony McCormack and Declan Harvey on the new council.

The party retained its two seats in each of the other two electoral areas also. In Edenderry there was a change in personnel with Claire Murray taking Robert McDermott's seat to join Eddie Fitzpatrick, whose 22.8% share of the first preference vote was by far the largest in the county, while Audrey Hennessy Kennedy joined poll-topper Peter Ormond in the Birr area, coming in ahead of the third Fianna Fáil candidate Barbara Daly, sister of outgoing councillor Eamon Dooley, who had chosen not to contest the election. It meant the end of an unbroken 70-year link on the council as their father, Eddie Joe had preceded Eamon on the council.

It was a hugely positive election for Sinn Féin, the yo-yo party of Offaly. Three seats, including two runaway poll-toppers in 2014, none in 2019 and back to three again in 2024 - at a time when the party's performance nationally slumped dramatically from the heights of the opinion polls late last year.

Sean Maher, who previously sat on the council, was re-elected for the Birr area, after a tense recount when just 27 votes separated him from outgoing councillor, Clare Claffey. The recount which concluded late on Monday night resulted in no significant change and brought the curtain down on a marathon count session at Mucklagh Community Centre.

In Tullamore Aoife Masterson performed impressively as a first-time candidate for Sinn Féin and her election, along with her party colleague Claire Murray in Edenderry, the latter's namesake, Claire Murray, of Fianna Fáil also in Edenderry and Hennessy Kennedy of the same party in Birr means the number of female members on the council has doubled. However, all four are newcomers as the two outgoing councillors, Clare Claffey of the Social Democrats and Independent Sandy Feehan-Smollen both lost their seats.

The two women were joined in ranks of the defeated by Edenderry area duo McDermott of Fianna Fáil and Mark Hackett of the Green Party. It was an abysmal election for the Greens. with Hackett and Liam Walsh and Ekaterina Koneva all failing to spark, and netting only 807 first preferences between them.

It represented an electoral wipeout - with the party blamed for the sundering of the county's link with peat, carbon taxes, and for what was perceived as an anti-rural platform. The mudguard effect of the smallest party in a coalition government, which may well have brought in similar changes even without the Green Party, is also not to be discounted. The timing of the recent controversy over the low level of Just Transition funding to Offaly couldn't have been worse - and it was a catastrophic self-inflicted political wound.

Fine Gael will be happy to have increased its representation from four to five having added a second seat in the Birr Electoral Area, with John Clendennen joined by Hughie Egan, who had come so close in 2019. Neil Feighery topped the poll in Tullamore, with 1,962 votes, as the sole party standard bearer, whilst both Noel Cribbin and Liam Quinn were returned in Edenderry.

It was an election, we were told, which would see a significant fracturing of the vote and a move towards independents and smaller parties. The Offaly electorate though appeared not to have been on message. Instead, the three main parties now account for 16 of the 19 seats on the council.

That is not to ignore the performances of the three candidates outside the main parties who were elected, Fergus McDonnell of the new Independent Ireland party in Edenderry and John Leahy and Sean O'Brien in Birr and Tullamore respectively. McDonnell was elected on the first count, and clearly had the political wind in his sails, whilst Leahy also exceeded the quota on the first count, though his own vote was somewhat down on 2019. O'Brien saw his numbers increase significantly, a major achievement for a long-serving councillor, one, incidentally, that was replicated by Fianna Fáil's Peter Ormond in the Birr area, with the experienced campaigner's vote rising again.

Geographically, it is notable that there are no councillors based in either the towns of Banagher or Ferbane, with the centre of power in the South Offaly area very much around the town of Birr.

Now that the marathon counts have finished and the declarations complete, attention will turn to the task of putting together a power block to run the next council. Fianna Fáil is very much in the box seat in this regard. It will need the support of just two other councillors to secure a majority, with John Leahy, Fergus McDonnell or Sean O'Brien likely to be the names on the list of potential allies.