Donegal SW: Tipping the Republic towards ‘regime change’?

Three pieces well worth reading on the nature of the challenge facing Fianna Fail in Donegal. Two knowledgeable voices worth quoting at some length. First Fionnan Sheahan from his column on Thursday:

Only when Sinn Fein senator Pearse Doherty took the strategically astute move of seeking to get the courts to force the Government’s hands did the Coalition begin to budge.

Doherty succeeded in getting a hearing in the High Court, arguing there was a constitutional right to have adequate representation.

Turning down yet another demand from the opposition, Government Chief Whip John Curran announced six weeks ago that the Government would hold all three by-elections in the spring.

He said that the Government was putting off the by-elections to next year to firstly “clear the major upcoming economic hurdles”.

“It is with that in mind that it is the Government’s intention to move the writs for the by-elections in the first quarter of 2011,” he told the Dail in late September.

The Taoiseach suddenly started to differentiate between the three votes in recent weeks. He guaranteed the Donegal South-West vote would definitely be held in the spring.

Yet, he surprisingly failed to commit to the same date for the other two votes in Dublin South and Waterford. No doubt Cowen was trying not to offend the courts, pending the ruling on the High Court challenge, but he may also have had an inkling of the likely outcome.

The fallback position, if the court case went bad, was to simply hold the Donegal South-West vote and kick to touch on the other by-elections. Dr James McDaid’s resignation in Donegal North-East merely added to the confusion.

The Government has now been confronted with the worst of both worlds: forced to hold the by-election in the middle of the preparations for the Budget, following the publication of the four-year plan.

The by-election decision actually puts the focus on the passing of the Budget. And it will beg the question for some coalition TDs: why bother?

Indeed. The pressure is hardly welcome amongst party activists still pondering how to actually sell the party’s erstwhile ‘tough decisions’ message on an increasingly hostile doorstep (even dyed in the wool FF doorsteps). Noel Whelan in this weekend’s Irish Times proffers an explanation of Fianna Fail’s faint heart (and the quality of SinnFein’s opportunity:

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.

His Irish Times colleague, Harry Magee is backing Pearse Doherty of Sinn Fein to take the seat:

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.

That’s a bold call in what could prove a seminal election. Since the Taoiseach promised at least two more by elections in the first quarter of 2011, it has become something of ‘parlour game’ within Dublin’s political and media circles to guess whether this is FF code for a General Election (since their loss would consign the government’s majority to the annals of history any way).

With Donegal NE also now weighing heavily in the constitutional scales, a Spring general election has to be a better than even money bet. For now, I’m sticking with my original ‘too-close-to-call’ verdict. But the momentum has to be with Doherty, not least because his party was the one that took the action to make the by election happen in the first place.

Now might be a good time for Donegal voters to give Dublin a damned good kicking, ie in a by election rather than the imminent general election. And they might just calculate that returning a TD from a party the Dublin establishment had previously believed was long since dead and buried would be revenge enough.

We’ll be reserving our own judgement at least until the last Sunday before polling day when I hope to do a quick hop around the constituency to test the waters from Donegal Town to Glencolmcille, Gaoth Dobhair and the Finn Valley.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty