Double Donegal debacle emblematic of national mess


Fianna Fáil’s frightening lack of forward thinking and political nous may ultimately prove its undoing, writes NOEL WHELAN

THE MESS Fianna Fáil has got itself into in Donegal is a microcosm of the problems it has made for itself countrywide. This week’s two Donegal debacles show a frightening lack of attention to political and party management.

There should never have been a Dáil vacancy in Donegal South West. The need for the byelection was of Fianna Fáil’s own making. Its candidate strategy for the European elections in the North-West constituency was thrown into chaos in April 2009 when outgoing MEP, Seán Ó Neachtain, announced, just two months after the selection convention, that he would not stand after all.

Terrified by poll predictions of electoral meltdown in the heartland of Connacht/Ulster, the party press-ganged Pat “The Cope” Gallagher to step into the breach. Gallagher confirmed to Sean O’Rourke on Thursday that he was given just 24 hours in May 2009 to decide whether to stand for Europe.

As a strategy to save a Fianna Fáil seat in the European Parliament, it worked spectacularly but the loss of a vote in the Dáil was an entirely disproportionate price. This Dáil vote was squandered to save face while six months later the option of nominating a serving minister to the much more significant post of Ireland’s European commissioner was ruled out because it would reduce the Government’s majority.

It may be that when sending Pat “The Cope” to Brussels party managers believed they could win a Donegal South West byelection. If so, they were unduly optimistic. Fianna Fáil polled more than 42 per cent in this constituency in 2007 but even by spring 2009 polls showed their vote in Connacht-Ulster had fallen by over a third. It has fallen by almost another third since. The 1997 precedent showed how without Pat “The Cope” on the ticket the party’s vote was likely to fall significantly even in good times. The modern inability of government parties to win byelections in our peculiar system should also have told Fianna Fáil that its chances of holding Gallagher’s seat were slim.

However, Fianna Fáil’s actions since June 2009 suggest a party far from confident of a Donegal South West win. That is the only explanation for the 17-month campaign of delay which has done so much damage to the party in Donegal and nationally. Now, 20 days before the poll, the party still does not have a candidate. The failure to put a candidate in place months ago is all the more peculiar since Brian Ó Domhnaill was appointed a Senator in August 2007 presumably as the heir apparent in precisely this type of eventuality. Even if he emerges as the candidate from the Fianna Fáil convention in Glenties on Sunday, Ó Domhnaill will be starting very late and competing now against Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty who has the wind of his court victory at his back.

Once the other Dáil vacancies reopened in Dublin South and Waterford the Government should have moved immediately to decouple the Donegal contest by running it off. They should at least have acted when the legal challenge was mounted and held the Donegal byelection in September.

Even the time it took the Government to respond to this week’s High Court judgment suggests that while absorbed with budgetary affairs nobody is in charge of basic political strategy. It was evident to anyone with half a political brain hearing even a summary of the judgment that the byelection would have to be held forthwith. Brian Cowen and his Ministers may have been, understandably, surprised by the outcome or at least by the tenor and extent of the High Court judgment, but they should have “scenarioed” for this outcome and had an immediate and definitive response ready.

One can have a little more sympathy for Fianna Fáil’s political and party mangers when it comes to the other Donegal problem which erupted this week. Jim McDaid has always been an unorthodox politician. A prominent Letterkenny-based GP with no political involvement, he was prevailed upon by party chieftains like Bernard McGlinchey and Noel McGinley to stand in the 1989 election. He was immediately celebrated by the media as an able, colourful and up-and-coming backbencher. Viewed by some colleagues as a “notice box” he became a magnate for controversy. It is clear from the manner and peculiar timing of his resignation this week that he hasn’t lost his fondness for the limelight.

McDaid’s 21-year career has had its highs and lows. He was minister for defence designate for one day in April 1991 and minister for tourism, sports and recreation in Bertie Ahern’s first government in 1997-2002 before being demoted to minister of state in 2002.

His lowest political and personal moment came with his drink-driving incident on the Kildare dual carriageway in 2005. As a result he was easing quietly off the political stage in the lead into the 2007 election when he was provoked back to life by Bertie Ahern’s forced merger of the Blaney organisation into Fianna Fáil.

Pressurised by his disgruntled local organisation, McDaid announced he would contest the election after all, as an Independent, if necessary. In typical fashion Ahern avoided open warfare between the McDaid, Cecilia Keaveney and Niall Blaney camps by putting all three on the ticket. Again it worked in the short term – the party held two of the three seats – but it stored up trouble for the future. In the days after the election McDaid denounced party headquarters saying it gave him no assistance in the campaign and he warned that the Fianna Fáil-led Government could not count on his support in the 30th Dáil. This week he proved true to that threat.

If the Government doesn’t get better at political strategy soon, it will have no majority to implement whichever budgetary plan it ultimately decides upon.