May 30th, 2019
After a long weekend of anxious waiting going into the eight count in the Moate Civic Centre in Athlone on Sunday night, things were tense for Louise Heavin.
“I’m feeling a bit nervous now,” the first-time candidate remarked, glancing about the hall. “We’re getting to the crunch phase.”
Running in her home county, Heavin was vying to become the first ever Green Party representative elected to Westmeath County Council.
Things were not looking good up to the eight count, Heavin’s sister Felicity told The Green News, as she was “kind of teetering around seventh place”.
That was until the last few boxes were opened, the tallies of which shot her up to the fifth and final available seat for the Athlone constituency.
“It’s coming down to the wire,” Felicity said at the time. And so it did with Heavin declared elected at the 11th and final count. She joined her fellow Green Hazel Smyth who was earlier elected in Mullingar.
While their story is a first for the county, their achievement wasn’t an anomaly as the Greens also secured their first-ever council seats in counties Galway, Limerick, and Offaly.
The Green Wave
While the national return of 49 of 82 party candidates was unexpected, the wins in the heart of the Irish Midland were not only surprising, they were completely unprecedented.
In 2011, the Green candidate in the general election received just 0.54 percent of total votes for the Longford-Westmeath constituency. By the time the 2016 general election rolled around, their support climbed but only to two per cent of first preference votes.
At a local level, it was a similar picture. Sean Corrigan ran for the party in Mullingar East in both 2004 and 2009, failing to secure a seat at both attempts. Martin McEnroe also ran in Athlone in 2004 but to no avail, and in 2014 the party didn’t even put someone forward in the county.
But in 2019, something was different. The election was on the other side of two historic referendums – marriage equality and repealing the eighth amendment – and Irish politics had shifted.
And over the past few months, increased media attention on climate change has brought the issue to both the public forefront and to the ballot box.
“I think the involvement of young people in Repeal and in marriage equality mobilized young people to work on a campaign and see what they can achieve,” the Green’s election manager Roderic O’Gorman told The Green News.
“There’s a cohort of young people who are quite politicized and feel like they have a stake in the country’s future and want to fight for it,” he says.
Knocking on doors
Heavin, who has an architecture and construction background, joined the Green Party in 2016 and was involved in Westmeath Together for Yes. She also organized a Green Party local event on Repeal.
For Heavin, the Green Party was the one political party that best aligned with her views, and around a year and a half ago she first thought about running for local office.
It took her a while before she committed to the idea, she says, as “running a campaign is a huge commitment” and she wasn’t sure if she would get the support locally.
“But I decided to go for it,” she says, although she was unsure of the “kind of reception I would get when I started knocking on doors”.
The reaction from the public, much to her surprise, was largely positive as she was greeted with an electorate increasingly “concerned about climate action and the environment” over her months of campaigning.
Expecting a baby in February, Heavin wanted got a head start with canvassing in November, and only took a month off after the birth of her daughter.
People also resonated with her message around planning issues in Athlone, where commuting and traffic delays around the town is a big problem, she says. Even still, Heavin stresses, she didn’t expect to win.
Now that she has broken through the barrier with Smyth, she says that they both hope to improve the environmental record of the county, particularly in relation to sustainable transport and community services.
“I think it’s really important to show that the Green Party isn’t just a party of the big cities,” Roderic O’Gorman says of their win.
“We really wanted these seats because we want to show that we understand the solutions aren’t going to look the exact same in cities, medium towns, and rural areas.”