'You'll be getting my number one and there's more again in that house and down the lane'
As with the election of Bobby Sands to Westminster, a Dáil win for Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty could also have far-reaching effects
NOT SINCE the election of the late Bobby Sands to Westminster has a republican candidate been in such a fateful position to influence events.
Pearse Doherty was only three years of age when the IRA hunger striker secured his remarkable victory at the polls.
Nearly 30 years on, the republican strategy has changed: now it’s just the ballot box, and the Armalite has been decommissioned. But as with the election of Sands in nearby Fermanagh-South Tyrone, a win for the young Sinn Féin Senator could have far-reaching effects.
If he is elected to the Dáil, the Government’s already shaky majority will go down from three to two. That could mean a defeat on the budget, with huge implications not just for Brian Cowen and co but for the entire euro zone and beyond.
It’s hard to tie these considerations in with the sight of Doherty politely making his way from door to door in the villages and towns of Donegal South West.
He has a high recognition factor, not just because of his successful High Court case which forced the holding of the byelection after a delay of 17 months but also as a result of being active in Donegal politics for the last 10 years.
About one in three voters promise him their support. The others are friendly but vague, as though they are still thinking about it. There is only one firm rebuff: “No effing way!” In the 2007 general election, Doherty scored an impressive 8,462 first preference votes, but Fianna Fail’s Mary Coughlan and Pat “The Cope” Gallagher got 20,136 first preferences between them.
Even with the current crisis and the dizzying decline in Fianna Fáil’s popularity, the Sinn Féin contender has a steep mountain to climb.
His canvassing team yesterday included another aspiring Sinn Féin politician: Toiréasa Ferris, a daughter of Deputy Martin Ferris who herself secured almost 65,000 first preferences in last year’s European elections.
Irish people hate saying No and a man in blue overalls at the village of Kilcar promises Doherty a preference without saying which one. “I’ll give you a stroke,” he says, but a grinning passer-by issues a political health warning: “He’s a Fine Gaeler, that man.”
There is a more positive response in nearby Teelin. “You’ll be getting my number one and there’s more again in that house, and down the lane,” says a woman dressed stylishly in black.
The scenery is stunning but Doherty’s team are not distracted. There are many native speakers here and the candidate’s fluency in Irish comes in useful.
“I’ll see,” a woman in Slieve League says, in the finest Ulster Gaelic. She goes on to lament the “easy money” ethos of the Celtic Tiger years, thereby giving Doherty a chance to slip in a reference to retiring TD Jim McDaid’s generous pension arrangements.
A neighbouring house is more encouraging: “I will certainly vote for you, because you couldn’t do worse than what we have now.” As well as being a new type of Sinn Féiner, Doherty sees himself as a different kind of politician – for example, he refuses to play the game of going to funerals when he doesn’t know the deceased.
“My father canvassed for Pat ‘The Cope’,” he says, “and my mother came from a traditional Fine Gael background.” His parents didn’t know he was in Sinn Féin until they saw him on the news attending a Bloody Sunday commemoration rally.
He was one of the founders of Ógra Shinn Féin, the party’s youth wing, in 1997. Unlike older colleagues, he doesn’t have a colourful past, and quips that his only dark secret is that he used to be a fan of heavy metal.
Doherty was born in Glasgow but his family returned home to Gweedore when he was a child. He studied engineering at third level. His election to the Seanad in 2007 came as a result of a voting pact with the Labour Party. Whatever the byelection result, it’s safe to say he won’t be going away.