On Saturday morning in Leisureland, one of the first trends to emerge from the tallies was that Labour candidate Derek Nolan was polling strongly and would take a seat on this, his first time running for the Dáil.
Throughout the day Labour members had been strutting around, full of confidence. The party had shown great belief in the candidate and knew it had got the vote out for him, but was wise enough not to count its chickens too soon.
To put it mildly this was going to be a challenge. The 29-year-old had only been elected to the Galway City Council in June 2009 and now he had to hold onto the seat of Michael D Higgins - a TD of 23 years; a man who commanded a loyal and personal vote; and a figure of national standing in Irish politics.
Yet, Dep Nolan, as he is now, and the Labour team, met that challenge, so much so that he topped the poll with 7,489 first preferences - the first Galway West Labour candidate to do so since Michael D in 1992 - beating such long established figures as Éamon Ó Cuív and Noel Grealish into second and third place respectively. He finally took the seat on the 10th count with a combined vote of 10,431 to huge cheers and emotional scenes from family, friends, and supporters.
“It’s a great result for the party and it’s great to have held the Labour seat,” he told me as we sat in the count centre for an interview. “The vibe was great from the moment I was selected and so was the vibe on the door. I had a great team of people and we worked extremely hard.”
To have gone from a new councillor to a poll topping TD in the space of 18 months is impressive but it could easily lead to someone becoming a bit too accustomed to success, breeding over-confidence and. Does Dep Nolan think being a TD will change him?
“I don’t think it will change me,” he replies. “I have always been a political person and I got involved in politics out of conviction. Also I have a very down to earth family who would be very quick to put me in my place if I got any notions.”
The first time TD will find himself a backbench member of the next government, which is virtually certain to be a Fine Gael/Labour coalition. During the last week of campaigning it was touch and go. Labour’s support seemed to drop in the closing week before receiving a bounce in the three days before polling.
“The drop was attributable to the unfair accusations that we were a high tax party,” says Dep Nolan, “but the recovery was when we clarified the situation and people decided they didn’t want a one-party FG government and wanted us in the next government.”
Despite this, Dep Nolan is not keen to pre-empt what might happen in any future negotiations and is not taking for granted the make up of the next government.
“It all comes down to discussions,” he says. “It will be a Labour/FG government if the programme for Government reflects a lot of Labour policy. If agreement can be reached that will be good but if it can’t we won’t be sacrificing our principles for the sake of being in power. We won’t be in government at any price. We won’t be there to make up the numbers.”
Yet all eyes will be on FG and Labour as the most likely coalition partners and given the way both parties tore into each other during the election campaign over policy differences, some will wonder if they will be compatible or combustible coalition partners.
“The highlighting of differences was important as the public was entitled to know about them,” says Dep Nolan. “We have to respect the decision of the people and work with the numbers they have given.”
The next government faces into a grim and bleak political and economic landscape - the almost unimaginable mess that Fianna Fáil has left this State in - deep recession; dead and zombie banks swallowing billions upon billions of taxpayers money; rising unemployment; the return of emigration; the EU/IMF in control of our financial affairs; and taxpayers forced to bear the burden of crushing debts incurred on Ireland, not by taxpayers, but by the banks and government incompetence.
The election of a new government will not on its own solve this problem immediately or even in the near future. However if people do not begin to see results, what is to stop them turning on FG/Labour and viewing them in the same light as they view FF now?
“The anger at Fianna Fáil wasn’t due to the cuts, it was to the way the cuts were implemented and the way Fianna Fáil got us into this mess,” says Dep Nolan. “People are not expecting a miracle. They are expecting honest hard work, politicians who have a plan, and who they can see are doing their very best. People aren’t unreasonable and know the next five years will not be easy, but they expect us to work on their behalf, openly and honestly.
Dep Nolan describes job creation as his major priority in the Dáil, but says he is not going to follow the old path of being a TD whose focus is exclusively local.
“We need to move away from the idea where TDs will fight each other for scarce resources just for one constituency,” he says. “I will work in the legislature and seek to inform national job creation policy and represent the concerns of Galway West.”
It has been an impressive rise for Derek Nolan over the last two years, but now that he has reached the Dáil, he will be expected to perform as a TD. He has taken over the Michael D seat and he has to keep hold of it. These will be his next political challenges.