Date set for Donegal South West poll


The Tánaiste announced today the long-delayed Donegal South West byelection will be held on Thursday, November 25th.

The Government last night decided to move the writ for the byelection following stern criticism from the president of the High Court, Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns, for the delay in filling the vacancy which arose in the summer of 2009.

The decision to hold the byelection could make it even more difficult for the Coalition to get its budget through the Dáil on December 7th.

Government Chief Whip John Curran said last night the writs for the other three outstanding byelections in Dublin South, Waterford and Donegal North East would be moved early in the new year.

Yesterday's High Court ruling was made in response to an action by Senator Pearse Doherty (Sinn Féin), who argued that the delay amounted to a breach of his constitutional rights.

Mr Doherty is his party’s candidate for the Dáil vacancy caused by the election of Fianna Fáil TD Pat “The Cope” Gallagher to the European Parliament in June of 2009. The Fine Gael candidate is sports journalist Barry O’Neill, while Labour has selected Frank McBrearty jnr.

Fianna Fáil has not yet held a convention to select a candidate. Mr Gallagher said today he would not be contesting the poll.

Mr Curran said that despite the decision to move the writ today, the Cabinet had decided to appeal yesterday’s High Court decision to the Supreme Court. The court ruled that the delay in holding the byelection was unconstitutional.

He said Attorney General Paul Gallagher had raised “significant points from a constitutional position to do with the separation of powers” and that was why a decision to appeal the court decision had been taken.

Speaking this morning, Mr Curran refused to be drawn on when the other outstanding byelections would be held. "To be fair, we have given no consideration collectively to the situation created by Jim McDaid. That just hasn't come up yet for consideration."

Mr Curran said the Government had not given specific dates in 2011, because it was working to publish the four year economic plan, ensuring the market had faith in that, and moving to complete the finance bill. He added the Government had given a firm commitment the other byelections in the first quarter of next year.

This evening Taoiseach Brian Cowen said the Government is making the appeal because there are issues regarding the separation of powers that “need to be clarified”.

He said: “It’s a question of what the role of the Oireachtas and the courts would be in relation to the calling of by elections and the electoral act doesn’t set a time limit on that and the need to set a definitive interpretation of the issue from the supreme court.”

“Obviously we want to meet the spirit of the High Court judgment yesterday and we are proceeding with the Donegal South West byelection on that basis,” he added.

Labour leader Eamon Gilmore said the only reason the Government was appealing the Supreme Court's decision on the byelection was to "delay holding the other byelections."

Speaking on RTE's News at One this afteroon, Mr Gilmore said the Government was trying to cling onto office as long as possible and "well past their sell-by date."

"There is absolutely to reason why the other three byelections can’t be held on the same day as the Dounegal South West byelection. In the case of Dublin South, that seat has been vacant for most of the past 18 months. Waterford has been vacant since last March. Admittedly, Donegal North East is only recently vacated but previously it has always been the case that byelections are held together," he said.

"What this is about is a Government that is clapped out, that no longer has the confidence of the people, that the people want out of office, trying to stay in office for as long as possible and they know that if they hold all the byelections together their majority begins to wither away," he added.

Paul Kehoe of Fine Gael conceded it was unlikely the other byelections would be held before the budget.

"I was amazed to hear last night it was the Green Party policy to have the byelections. We moved the writs on these byelections over the last number of months, and the Green Party and Government voted them down on all occasions," Mr Kehoe said.

Mr Curran said ministers' preoccupation with drawing up the four year economic plan and budget would mean it would have some impact on the Donegal byelection campaign. "For ministers to put in their what might have been their traditional performance, I think that will be greatly curtailed in this instance."

The chief whip also denied Fianna Fáil and the Greens were split over the timing of the byelections. "At Cabinet last night, there was a frank discussion on this issue, and there was a consensus, there was no division."

Minister of State for Science Conor Lenihan said today Fianna Fáil was confident of winning the Donegal poll.

“Donegal has traditionally been a real Fianna Fáil stronghold,” he said. “We have two seats in that particular constituency, the Tánaiste is the incumbent minister and TD in that particular constituency, so if one was to pick any of the four byelection areas, Donegal is the one where we have the strongest chances.”

With the Government’s majority in the Dáil reduced to three as a result of Dr Jim McDaid’s decision to resign his seat, the election of an Opposition TD in Donegal South West would make things more difficult for the Government on the budget.

In his ruling on the case, Mr Justice Kearns said the delay in calling the byelection had been unprecedented. He said that while the relevant legislation did not set out the time period in which a byelection should be called, he was satisfied it should be interpreted as requiring the writ to be moved within a reasonable time, as in other countries.

The judge said he was not going to order the Government to move the writ or not to oppose a motion for the issue of a writ, but he hoped any clarification provided by his judgment would have that effect.