The Hills of Donegal
Deaglán de Bréadún
The Donegal South-West byelection is on Thursday next. It has been relegated from the main headlines because of the bailout crisis and the impending four-year plan but it is important nevertheless for the survival of this government and the passing of the Budget. The unpopularity of the Government must be weighed against the fact that FF had two quotas here in 2007. Pearse Doherty of Sinn Fein is likely to get a very high first preference vote but will doubtless need transfers to get him over the line. Another point is that if the Labour candidate gets ahead of Fine Gael it could cause trouble in the main opposition party. A piece I did which appeared in last Saturday’s paper examines the issues.
SF is bookies’ favourite but Donegal may still have soft spot for Fianna Fáil
DEAGLÁN de BRÉADÚN, Political Correspondent
Sat, Nov 20, 2010
DONEGAL SOUTH WEST BYELECTION: CONSTITUENCY PROFILE: THE HEADLINE in a local newspaper sums it up: “Eyes of nation on Donegal South West”.
The timeless hills of Tyrconnell are alive with the sound of canvassing. Fianna Fáil alone claims to have had at least 700 weekend canvassers out knocking on doors, and other election teams are pulling out all the stops as well.
The weather has ranged from violently stormy to deceptively placid, rivalling the political scene in its unpredictability. As he made his way through the driving rain and wind with Senator Pearse Doherty, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams quipped: “We’re looking for floating voters.” There are six candidates, four for the main parties and two Independents.
The vacancy was created by the election of Fianna Fáil’s Pat the Cope Gallagher as a member of the European Parliament in June last year. In his place, the party has chosen the hungry and energetic Senator Brian Ó Dómhnaill from Gortahork who has been canvassing Donegal South West for votes the way prospectors used to scour the Yukon for gold nuggets.
In normal times, there would be no argument as to who would win this contest. Gallagher and his Fianna Fáil colleague Mary Coughlan between them scooped up 20,136 first preferences in the 2007 general election, the equivalent of two quotas, or 51 per cent, and took two of the constituency’s three seats.
The other winner was Fine Gael’s Dinny McGinley, who secured 9,167 first-preference votes (23 per cent). Although he failed to take a seat, Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty garnered 8,462 first preferences (21 per cent) and has been the bookies’ favourite to win this byelection.
The Fine Gael candidate this time is Ballyshannon-based Barry O’Neill, a radio sports producer with RTÉ who has a strong GAA background. His main support will come from the southern end of the constituency.
Labour’s standard bearer is Frank McBrearty from Raphoe in the northeast of the constituency. In 1996, he was wrongly arrested on a trumped-up charge of murder in a Garda corruption scandal and was subsequently awarded €1.5 million in damages.
Independent candidate Thomas Pringle is a former Sinn Féin member and can be expected to take first preferences from Doherty, although he should return a proportion of them once he is eliminated. The other Independent is hotelier Ann Sweeney from Dunfanaghy.
In the initial aftermath of his successful High Court challenge forcing the Government to hold the byelection after long-fingering it for 17 months, Doherty was seen as the frontrunner by a fair distance.
The mood began to change somewhat with the Fianna Fáil selection convention at the Highlands Hotel in Glenties on the following Sunday. Despite highly inclement weather, the attendance was reported at more than 500 and there is no evidence that it was packed with “blow-ins”.
Even party organisers say they were taken aback by the size of the crowd, particularly since Ó Domhnaill was a shoo-in for the nomination in any case. There was a spring in Fianna Fáil’s step after that and a feeling that the fat could be pulled out of the fire.
However, Senator Doherty is seen as a very strong candidate, free from the whiff of sulphur that accompanies Sinn Féin contenders in certain other places, although he is faced with a major task to prove his party is no longer “transfer-repellent”.
Memories of the Troubles are fresh and the significant Protestant minority in the constituency are unlikely to provide comfort to Sinn Féin.
Dinny McGinley had a tough fight to hold off the challenge from Doherty in the general election. They are both from Gweedore and if Doherty wins the seat it could make things very difficult for Fine Gael in the general elections.
But if it is hard to see many Fine Gael transfers going to Doherty, he would do well once Pringle and McBrearty were eliminated. A RedC poll for Paddy Power bookmakers put Doherty at 40 per cent, followed by Ó Domhnaill at 19 per cent, O’Neill at 15 per cent and McBrearty at 14 per cent.
The view of most non-aligned observers is that Doherty will dislodge the Soldiers of Destiny in one of their greatest strongholds. Other longtime students of the political scene were saying — prior to the dramatic arrival of the EU-IMF delegation in Dublin — that, despite the Government’s deep unpopularity Fianna Fáil should just about retain this seat. But Doherty is very much the frontrunner at this stage.
The ultimate decision lies in the hands of the Donegal voters, who are notoriously enigmatic and not necessarily swayed by opinion in the rest of the State, as they showed by being the only county to reject the Lisbon Treaty in the second referendum.
© 2010 The Irish Times