Ming’s bog-cutting supporters turn up the heat during turf war in Castlebar

Raw emotion racks count centre while Taoiseach tries to get Gilmore on phone

Luke “Ming” Flanagan at the count centre for the European elections in Castlebar, Co Mayo, yesterday. Photograph: Keith Heneghan

Luke “Ming” Flanagan at the count centre for the European elections in Castlebar, Co Mayo, yesterday. Photograph: Keith Heneghan

Tue, May 27, 2014, 10:20

It was Mingdependence Day. Around lunchtime, he came up to the press gallery, the better to admire his “stash” piled behind the stage. Stash? “Ah yeah, yeah – the turf,” he said to his mother-in-law, Maura Kelly. “We’ll be startin’ the turf-cutting next week.”

The Harkin camp was still the only one calling the figures with exquisite accuracy (give them the national tallying franchise) and they said all along there would be no big Ming surplus.

“Ah, there’s more rumour mills in here than in Castlerea Prison,” he said, a reference to his time “inside”. Hmmm, this is an unusual conversation to be having with a newbie MEP, we suggested. “Yeah, they usually get jail after they’re elected,” he chortled.

He maintained the same unexcitable, benign expression throughout the day, standing in his Louis Copeland hemp suit with his wife Judy and daughters Isabel and Kate, sister Fiona, brother David, his parents-in-law and his father Luke. “He would object to the sun being out,” said Luke snr. But, like himself, Ming would always feel sorry for the underdogs when watching Westerns.

The true nature of his support became apparent as the results were about to be declared. Men built like tanks moved in behind him, turf men like Michael Darcy from Killimer – awaiting a court day for breaching the turf-cutting ban; Matt Farrell, a turf-cutting contractor; Michael Fitzmaurice, fresh from 100 bonfires after winning a council seat in Tuam; turf-cutters Michael and John Carey from Cloonagh, Ballinagore in Co Westmeath. They roared: “Champions, champions,” and lifted him high while his brother-in-law Jimmy Kelly waved a Tricolour. The graciousness slipped with Ming’s insistence on bellowing a speech while the other figures were being read, forcing other candidates on an emotional knife-edge, to search frantically for someone who’d heard.

Raw emotion They included Marian Harkin, whose raw emotion was barely suppressed despite her characteristic courtesy. Throughout her camp, there was palpable anger, most of it directed at the media, which they accused of chasing soft, shiny distractions across EP elections – first Dana, then Declan Ganley, now Ming – to the detriment of a woman who has been adjudged “the hardest-working MEP by a country mile”, and the only one who has left well over €200,000 in pension payments to the State over five years. Her loyal sisters and brother said “the break Marian needed from the media, she never got”.

But most involved referred to the lack of public engagement with Europe. John Mulligan, campaign organiser for Maireád McGuinness, and a scrutineer of the doubtful ballot papers, reckoned that about 10,000-11,000 of them were blank. The few with legible scrawls included one asking: “Why did Hitler have to die?”

Another member of the intelligentsia had inserted a critique next to each candidate; ie “speccy four eyes” beside McGuinness’s name. Jim Higgins threw in the towel before lunch. “I feel a great sense of resignation. I’ve been on this road before.”

What now ? “I’m going to retire. I’ve had a good innings. The only position left for me is pope. And I don’t think that’s going to happen,” he said, with a lively sideways look at his partner Noreen. “I taught her, you know,” he said murmuring something about gymslips. “Come on, she’s going to write all this stuff,” said Noreen.

Disaster money Higgins suggests that a losing/resigning MEP’s severance money is called vade mecum (go with me). Maybe on days like this, it could qualify as disaster money. Anyway, it appears to add up to a month’s salary for every year served. That’s in addition to the EU pension. It was never going to console Harkin. “She just loves what she does,” said her brother Pat.

Enda Kenny was in Castlebar when news of Eamon Gilmore’s imminent resignation spread through the count centre. When he said he had tried to ring Gilmore but couldn’t get through, we knew it was true. If Ireland’s democratic survival depended on the count centre communications system, we had the perfect conditions for a coup. Welcome to rural Ireland and the knowledge economy.