Donegal's winds of change likely to favour Doherty

 

Dark clouds are forming in Donegal South West as Fianna Fáil expect a byelection hammering, writes HARRY McGEEPolitical Correspondent in Donegal

THURSDAY WAS a savage night. On the drive north from Donegal town through the Barnesmore Gap, the wipers at double speed could hardly cope with the rain washing across the windscreen. At Finn Park in Ballybofey, the arc of powerful floodlights, towering over the town, caught the ferocity of the night as much as the soccer match below.

Few were on the streets on a wintry night. Those who hurried through were unaware of a pending election or indifferent to it. Indeed, the only real evidence in Donegal of it were a handful of early Sinn Féin and Labour posters along the main road to Lifford.

You wondered if they would survive the ravages of the weather between now and November 25th. It is deep winter too for Fianna Fáil. Opinion polls have shown that support for the party has collapsed in proportion to the economy. Jim McDaid's petulant exit this week pushed the Coalition closer to the edge. More dark clouds loom: the spectre of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) intervention; and a possible early general election that could annihilate the party.

Fianna Fáilers on the ground will tell you that Donegal South West is different, that the party's imprint is seeped into the DNA of the constituency. If the party wanted to pick one of the 43 constituencies with a chance of winning a byelection, it would be here. It won 50 per cent of the vote in 2007, two seats out of three - there were only three constituencies where the party vote was higher. In addition, the Opposition was neatly divided between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin - neither noted for transferring to each other.

Even with the deep slide evident last year, the party contained the losses in Donegal South West. In the local elections in June 2009, it retained five council seats out of 15: or seven, if the two Independents with strong Fianna Fáil links were included. One of the Independents is Séamus Ó Domhnaill, a brother of the likely Fianna Fáil candidate, Brian Ó Domhnaill, rejoined this week.

But even loyal Fianna Fáilers acknowledge that the 2009 local elections are no longer a reliable indicator. The chances of Fianna Fáil retaining the seat left vacant by Pat the Cope Gallagher 18 months ago are regarded by the party itself as slim, at best, even though Ó Domhnaill, a bundle of energy, is a good candidate.

The constituency is massive geographically. It takes two hours to drive from Creeslough in the north along the western flank to Bundoran in the south. It takes in three distinct areas; the Gaeltacht and coastal belt to the north and west; the centre and far south of the county with the three big towns of Donegal, Bundoran and Ballyshannon, as well as the Finn Valley to the east. "In a way it's like three different counties," says Ciarán O'Donnell, deputy editor of the Donegal Democrat. "The south of the country and the Finn Valley are very different from the west."

Because of the Border, there is a sense of a place apart, of slight isolation. That manifests itself mostly in controversies about the diminution of health services from Letterkenny. The county is also an unemployment blackspot, with the percentage of unemployed creeping towards 30 per cent following the demise of a once widespread textile and fishing industries.

James McBrearty, a retired Fianna Fáil councillor from the fishing community of Kilcar, accepts Fianna Fáil are in a bind and says that young people no longer follow family fealty to it, and will vote against it. "We do not really know at the moment how it is. Fianna Fáil is taking a hammering all over Ireland in the media and from the general public. It's going to be difficult," he says.

Another elected representative for Fianna Fáil, who wishes not to be named, believes the party will suffer a "hiding", that anger at the economic situation will swamp any residual party loyalty. "A lot of Fianna Fáil people just won't vote. The party just won't get the number out."

The party's problems have been compounded by its unpreparedness for the success of Sinn Féin Senator Pearse Doherty's High Court challenge. While Doherty and Frank McBrearty jnr have posters up since Thursday, Fianna Fáil has yet to choose a candidate. Gallagher ruled himself out, saying he would lose credibility by contesting a seat he himself vacated. Indeed, it would have been preposterous had he stood. Packie Bonner was never a realistic choice. Nor was Gallagher's wife, Ann Gillespie. Gallagher said he would not "anoint" anyone. That was code for the very cool relationship between him and fellow Gaeltacht politician, Ó Domhnaill.

Ó Domhnaill, like all the others, is naturally brimming with self-confidence. He accepts that the court case came as a surprise - or "aniar aduaidh" as he says in Irish - and also concedes that it gave Doherty a headstart. He is confident that his hard work and profile and the party's traditional organisational strength in the county will see him through.

The youngest candidate, at 32, he will present himself as someone not responsible for poor policies in the past. "The leadership needs to listen to people, on jobs and on health services. Mistakes have been made. I am acutely aware of the issues in the constituency."

A government party has not won a byelection since Noel Treacy's victory for Fianna Fáil in Galway East in 1982. In Donegal South West, Fianna Fáil won two byelections in the early 1980s and indeed has lost only one ever - way back in 1949.

But psephologist Sean Donnelly, a native of Donegal, believes that precedent makes little difference for byelections, which have their own dynamic.

"Irrespective of a party's strength or form, one candidate comes to prominence early on and will dominate the campaign. It happened with Mildred Fox [ in Wicklow]; with George Lee [ Dublin South] and with Catherine Murphy [ Kildare].

"This time it's Pearse Doherty. He won the court case and it's seen as his byelection. I can't see anybody else winning it."

Sitting in a hotel lobby in Donegal town, Doherty (33) has an unmistakable air of quiet confidence about him. He is one of the most highly regarded of the younger Sinn Féin politicians in the South and is a proven and convincing communicator.

He was bitterly disappointed not to win a seat in 2007, but points out that he has taken Sinn Féin from zero to 20 per cent in five years.

"Politics has been turned on its head. 2007 is like 100 years ago. We are looking at who will be the best to represent this constituency. I am confident that they will measure my work rate and ability, as well as Sinn Féin's stance on the economy."

Ballyshannon-based Barry O'Neill is Fine Gael's standard bearer and also believes he has a strong chance. He points to the local elections of 2009: "Fianna Fáil is on a slide. Our trend has been upward. I've been on the council since 2004 and have built a strong profile on health issues, finance, and jobs."

O'Neill, a sports producer with RTÉ, believes the election will boil down to transfers and that Fine Gael will be the most transfer-friendly, and will also outpoll Sinn Féin.

The dark horse is the Labour Party's candidate, the redoubtable Frank McBrearty jnr. A statement issued by the Labour Party yesterday on his behalf apologising for the use of "inappropriate language" (expletives in other words) during a row with the county manager is redolent of his idiosyncratic nature.

His family's fight against trumped-up charges following the death of Richie Barron in his home town of Raphoe was the trigger for his entry into politics. On his first outing, he won a council seat standing as a Labour candidate.

He is not lacking in confidence, but is regarded as a loose cannon. He is bullish: "I have taken on the might of the State and successfully won against the might of the State. People know my qualities of fighting for Donegal, especially with my family's fight," he says.

A strange aspect of this constituency is that transfers have not featured in the past, because the slate was small and the winners all polled very close to the quota. This time with Fianna Fáil in freefall, it will be different. Geographical location as well as personality will come into the reckoning.

Sinn Féin has not attracted transfers in the past. But Doherty could benefit from McBrearty, as well as Independent Thomas Pringle, a Killybegs-based councillor who believes the constituency needs an independent voice. Doherty can then attract enough from one of the two traditional parties to keep him ahead of the other.

Doherty says it's Fianna Fáil's election to lose. Everybody else says it is his to win.


POLITICAL BATTLEGROUND: DONEGAL SOUTH WEST

CANDIDATES

SINN FÉIN

Pearse Doherty (33), Gweedore.

Background: Senator since 2007. Civil engineer.

LABOUR

Frank McBrearty jnr (41), Raphoe.

Background: Publican, first came to national prominence after his family's campaign for justice after being framed for the death of a cattle dealer led to setting up of Morris Tribunal of Inquiry. Member of Donegal County Council since 2009.

FINE GAEL

Barry O'Neill (36), Ballyshannon.

Background: Sports producer with RTÉ radio. Member of Donegal County Council since 2004. Organiser of annual Rory Gallagher festival in Ballyshannon.

FIANNA FÁIL

Brian Ó Domhnaill (probable candidate) (32), Gortahurk.

Background: Senator since 2007. Member of Donegal County Council 2004-2007. Formerly a teacher.

INDEPENDENTS

Thomas Pringle (43), Killybegs.

Background: Works in water services with Donegal County Council. First elected to the county council in 1999 as Independent. Joined Sinn Féin in 2004, but resigned in 2007. Elected as an Independent in 1999.

Tom Conaghan (69), Donegal town.

Background: Independent councillor on Donegal County Council.

Captain of Donegal All-Ireland winning under-21 team in 1982.

ConstituencyThree seats

Electorate60,829

Share of vote in 2007 general election

Fianna Fáil: 50.53%

Fine Gael: 23%

Sinn Féin: 21.23%

Labour: 2.79%

Green Party: 1.48%

Others: 0.97%