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.


  • Chris Donnelly

    If Sinn Fein could have handpicked a constituency to hold a by election contest in at this stage, it would be Donegal South West.

    Following 2007 it was clear that Doherty was closest of all SF candidates to taking a new seat, and it has also become evident that he has the makings of a party leader within Leinster House.

    Taking this case in the first place was a bold and strategically intelligent move.

    A win for Doherty transforms Sinn Fein’s southern prospects ahead of a General Election when it will hope to make a double gain in Donegal and perhaps add two or three extra seats statewide.

    That’ll be somewhat ironic as I am convinced that the Assembly election will bring no such joy for the party.

  • Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit


    re. “transforms Sinn Fein’s southern prospects ”

    If SF took 10 seats it will make little difference surely as FG and Labour will still be miles ahead. Clealry puts them in a strong postion for election after next to captialise on Labour having ot make difficult decisions.

    re. “That’ll be somewhat ironic as I am convinced that the Assembly election will bring no such joy for the party”

    Lagan Valley is probably a loss due to boundary changes but otherwise same as you were for SF?

    There are probably 5 or 6 constituencies where SF can make gains but again that relies on wating on 1 or 2 Assembly elections and the continuing of favourable demographics.

  • Séamus Rua

    It is a FF two seater! – In reality SF have little chance.

    The southern media are building up Sinn Féin’s chances so that when they do not win it can be protrayed as a ‘massive failure’, ‘the end of SF’, ‘SF are irrelevant’.

    Sinn Féin would do well to remeber that.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    It was certainly a “stroke too far” to not hold elections in a timely fashion. Although as Ive said before, some at least of the blame must fall on a FG TD, who shameleesly promised his electors he would repreesent them and a few months later decided he didnt really want to do that at all.

    Clearly not holding the elections played fast and loose with the spirit of Bunreacht. But at least for the most part they were spread out. If a series of deaths and resignations had robbed (at random) County Kilkenny of all Dáil representation, the situation would have been untenable

    FF has behaved badly in this. That much is obvious. Twisting the democratic/constitutional process in this way leaves a bad taste.
    But your headline would be more responsible with the words “change of government” rather than the much more dramatic “regime change”. Brian Cowen is not Saddam Hussain.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Its special pleading to say “transforms SFs southern prospects”. Thats too much spin.
    SF were frankly unlucky last time round and will I suspect get a few more seats….two reasons …the economy and good luck.
    The actual court case is really irrelevant.
    What would make an even bigger difference is bus loads of SF northerners travelling to the south canvassing. That tactic backfired.

  • “a damned good kicking” and “long since dead and buried”

    Curious choice of metaphors, Mick. SF is trying to distance itself from that brand of Irish republicanism. Will FF do a dirty tricks operation on SF during the course of the campaign?

  • Valenciano

    Sammy, don’t know that I’d agree. SF will surely be targeting the SDLP seats in Mid Ulster and Fermanagh as well as having an excellent chance of a second seat in Upper Bann. They also have a fair chance of a gain in East Antrim to offset the loss in Lagan Valley.

  • Charminator

    I think this’ll go Sinn Féin and the margin could be surprising too. It’s a traditionally safe FF seat, but that’s fast becoming an endangered species. I think both Donegal constituencies will give way to a single SF seat in each. I suspect FF will want to max their Northern development credentials a bit in Donegal – possibly one of only a handful of constituencies in the country where such credentials matter – but I’d be very sceptical of whether that’ll be near enough.

    And actually, let’s not put aside the personality factor either. Sen. Doherty is very much the new breed of SFers. Articulate, persuasive, and a very savvy communicator. Compare him, for example, against some of the geriatrics in the SDLP, a particularly good example might be MoD tourist, Thomas Burns.

    Btw, the media suggest Biffo’s going up there? Why in God’s name is he venturing near Donegal? He’s hardly got much grasp of Ulster (or the North for that matter)… and if ever there was a sure way of haemorhagging votes, it’s having him somewhere in the photo! If local Donegal constituency have any sense they’ll block the roads tonight.

  • Charminator

    As an aside, a party “the Dublin establishment had previously believed was long since dead and buried would be revenge enough”. Are we talking about the same SF????

    I’d suggest that there are few in the ‘political’ establishment who think that!!!! Both Labour and FF are keeping a very watchful eye on SF. Or is the establishment in this case merely RTE and the Indo?

  • Sean

    Sinn Fein have a big chance Seamus. I live in the area and I can tell you that Doherty is well liked and respected. Its between Doherty and McBearty.

  • Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit


    Yes, good chances ok – but not as likley as the loss in Lagan Valley.

  • Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit

    Séamus Rua

    “The southern media are building up Sinn Féin’s chances”

    There may well be an element of that, but as the PP odds tend to suggest, even in a FF 2seat, it seems they are in serious trouble. Strange days indeed.

  • White Horse

    Dead eye Doherty might be able to promise his way to prominence in this bye-election but it hardly has any significant meaning in relation to SF. When the people of Donegal realise that Dead eye belongs to a party that promises maam and apple pie but has never any intention of delivering anything other than a propaganda coup for a movement that has no real empathy for Irish people.

    Sure they starve their brothers to death to get themselves political careers.

  • To begin at the beginning:

    It is Spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and- rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea. The houses are blind as moles …

    Sorry. Re-boot.

    To begin at the beginning:
    Mary Coughlan, FF: 10,530 first preferences, only one to make the 9,964 quota.
    Pat ‘The Cope’ Gallagher, FF: 9,606
    Dinny McGinley, FG: 9,167.
    All elected. The damn-close also ran, because he took only 700+ of the third-count transfers to McGinley’s 1,000:
    Pearse Doherty, SF: 8,862.

    Labour was nowhere; and the choice of Frank McBrearty Jnr doesn’t warm the cockles too much.

    So, as John Drennan was pontificating for last week’s Sindie, Calamity Jane should survive, though one might reckon she’ll be off-the-pace next time, so no transfers or coat-tails. Dinny ought to be the walk-away winner here, and Doherty (Drennan’s “certainty”) must make the three for the 31st Dáil. But, seriously, the fading of FF in this, one of its natural two-and-oners is the real staggerer.

    That, of course, is not the question for 25th November. But Paddy Power inevitablyhad the answer. When I last looked: SF @ 2/5 odds on, unknown FF and Barry O’Neill FG both @ 4/1. That spread wouldn’t tempt me at all, at all. So I’m presently with Charminator @ 3:28 pm‘s first sentence. In fact, apart from preferring “haemorraging” (and the spell-check sadly doesn’t like that, either), I’d underline the rest as well.

  • medillen

    Go away White Horse, as usual you have nothing useful to contribute other than your anti-SF bile. It is tiresome.

  • pippakin

    Is regime change the right description of the by election or the next general election? FF have only delayed three by elections, they are clinging to power by the finger tips, not the business end of a military machine.

    SF should do well in the by election, they have made all the running and in a way deserve the victory. As long as it is of short duration and not added to at the general election.

  • Allegheny County has passed a motion on Irish unity so the boul Gerry is Donegal bound. Will he be staying in his summer palace? 😉

  • White Horse

    Bile? Surely you confuse it with accurate analysis of the Sinn Fein analysis.

    It’s not so much an analysis, as a reason for psychoanalysis. Warm up man.

  • medillen

    Fianna Fail selection convention tonight now over, depite rumours of a surprise rival not approved by party HQ, Brian O Domhnaill selected unopposed.

  • Séamus Rua

    “Brian O Domhnaill selected unopposed”

    Removes any advantage Doherty may have had having access to RnaG / TG4.

  • There certainly has to be a change from the cute-whoring of the Bertie years. In large part that’s the start and end of the present difficulties. Call it a change of régime, regimen, attitude, policies, leadership, party/ies or whatever, it’s got to come.

    Then someone has the problem of sanitizing FF, which could take even longer, or be a hopeless task.

  • My take is that Ó Domhnaill’s role has been as the Gortahork spare wheel, feeding “Brian Ó Domhnaill has welcomed …” bilingual press releases to anybody prepared to re-print them.

    Lamb to the slaughter?

    So who was the rumoured dark horse?

  • pippakin

    Malcolm Redfellow

    I’ll call it a general election! and what is worse I’m not sure it’ll be such a great one to win. Give it two years and whoever is in will be taking the blame and the ‘sanitized’ FF will be the very personification of fiscal rectitude.

  • Hold on! I’m reading the RTÉ news-tem verycarefully:

    Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill from Gortahork has been selected as the Fianna Fáil candidate in the forthcoming by-election in Donegal South-West.

    The Taoiseach and Tánaiste were both in Glenties, Co Donegal for the Fianna Fáil convention.

    Four candidates were nominated yesterday afternoon.

    Two conclusions there:
    The heavy mob were sent in to prevent trouble.
    If there were four nominations, the unanimity was an after-thought.

  • As you will.

    Two corollaries:
    1. the Augean stables still need mucking-out;
    2. There ain’t gonna be a Tea Party.

  • pippakin

    Malcolm Redfellow

    Do you think FF will be like UK Labour out for a decade or more? I doubt it, they are the ‘default position’ of the majority. I hope for change but this mess will not allow the new government to show much flare, these particular stables can spin like a top.

    We are all Taxed Enough Already but tea party here? You are right it ain’t gonna happen. Thankfully.

  • pippakin @ 9:22 pm:

    You might have intended flair (rhymes with “Blair”): sagacious perceptiveness, instinctive discernment.

    Whereas your use of flare amply renders both the FF and ConDem coalitions: giving forth a dazzling and unsteady light … Obtrusive display, ostentation, etc.. Up like a rocket, and down like the stick. Won’t take a decade, either.

  • Alias

    There is a lot of anger among people about the government behaving like a junta in attempting to cling to power against the popular will by denying the democratic process. These self-serving anti-democratic shenanigans will backfire badly on them in other constituencies. Folks are truly sick of cute hoorism that puts party interest before the national interest, and FF just don’t get it.

  • pippakin

    Malcolm Redfellow

    Regime change implies an element of coercion and I’m sure FF will toddle off to the opposition benches with hardly a whimper. I’m pretty sure the survivors will be glad to be there.

    The tea party movement in the US is a right of centre movement unlikely to gain much ground here or anywhere in the UK.

    The ConLib coalition in the UK is an example of what will almost certainly happen here, and as you have probably noticed labour are already sounding as though it is none of their fault.

    My only intention was to offer my opinion. I leave the ‘flare’ to you.

  • George

    “Do you think FF will be like UK Labour out for a decade or more? I doubt it, they are the ‘default position’ of the majority.”

    I don’t think you appreciate the level of anger south of the border. The knives are certainly out and could easily take a decade.

    Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit says,
    “If SF took 10 seats it will make little difference surely as FG and Labour will still be miles ahead. Clealry puts them in a strong postion for election after next to captialise on Labour having ot make difficult decisions.”

    The next Dáil is hugely significant. The most important thing for SF is that they would be, for all intents and purposes, the opposition in such a situation.

    FF will have no credibility after the next election and neither will the Greens, even if they exist. All that leaves is SF.

    Interesting times.

  • pippakin

    Malcolm Redfellow

    I just spotted my spelling mistake. You are right of course on that occasion I meant ‘flair rhymes with Blair’.

    I leave the ‘flare’ to you was however intentional…

    Please bring preview back.

  • pippakin


    So many opinions and of course we are all right! I think ‘All that leaves is SF’ is the most worrying possibility of all.

  • John Ó Néill

    “Doherty says it’s Fianna Fáil’s election to lose. Everybody else says it is his to win.”

    FF have put out a call to all branches to send up canvassers. With just over 50% of the first preference in the last election, it is surely theirs to lose (indeed, if they were asked to pre-select a by-election in 2007 they would probably have chosed Donegal SW). If they do so, it won’t be catastrophic – governments and governing coalitions just don’t win by-elections. However, if SF win by attracting FG transfers, or if the FF vote dips to third place it might be more a portent of how the general election will play out (and Conor Lenihan is being reported on RTE as having said that it may be sooner rather than later).

    Over the weekend, I watched the television footage of both the FG canvas and FF selection convention. Both parties looked distinctly un-energised by all this. Both Enda Kenny and Brian Cowen looked like they just didn’t want to be there (or maybe didn’t really care since neither was in a big hurry for the by-election to take place). Meanwhile Labour have supposedly shut up shop until the media stop asking questions about the business dealings of Eamon Gilmore’s wife.

    The other image that has stuck in my head was of the mass stranding of whales on Rutland Island off the Donegal coast. Magnificent creatures that are driven by some incomprehensible instinct to deliberately beach themselves along with their calves. Part of the way of things, obviously, but sad nonetheless.

  • George

    Obviously not everyone can be right but the vagaries of fate seem to left us with SF being the “main” opposition being more probable than possible.

    It’s a virtual racing certainty that FG and Labour will have a huge majority after the next election, a quasi national government.

    FF are discredited and we can argue about how long this position will last but I think it’s safe to say one election term is the absolute minimum.

    That leaves just SF as the main voice of opposition for the next Dáil term, which, as the EU expects nay demands, will run the full term to ensure all the “necessary measures” are implemented.

    With this appalling vista of a potential SF opposition, it’s hardly surprising that more and more of the establishment in the Republic are calling for the foundation of a new party.

    If SF get 10+ seats (hardly beyond the bounds of possibility) at the next Dáil election, which looks like being in early 2011, then they have a five-year run at becoming a truly credible party in the Republic before the 2016 election.

    That should be some centenary of the Rising. As I said, interesting times.

  • Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit


    Whether SF win 8 or 10 seats will be extremely significant to them but will still leave them as the 4th largest party and still dependent on favourable mathematics so get into power – and the soonest that is likley to be is the election after next.

    In opposition (with FF largely discredited and probably trying to keep thier heads down) I agree that SF do have an opportunity for growth outside the border areas and tradional strongholds but only if they sound more pragamatic than ideological and only if they move away from their anti-european stance which is about as popular with the Plain People of Ireland as the recent Fine Gael idea of publically kowtowing to Her Majesty during her forthcoming visit.

  • pippakin


    Well said, not everyone can be right but we can and do believe we are!

    Yes it does look like interesting times ahead and who knows SF may mature into the right party to lead Ireland. Unlikely but not impossible,

  • Mick Brown

    This business about giving Dublin a “good kicking” could indeed refer to what I believe is the mindset of a lot of people in this completely abandoned and neglected constituency. However, perhaps a more likely rebuttal of the crystal ball warblings of the Dublin chattering classes would be for the Donegal SW electorate to back Fianna Fáil?

    There’s an incredibly wide disconnect between issues relating to central government, and local politics in this constituency. Young people might think differently, but most of them have left the constituency, as is the unbroken pattern here for generations. If they’re still in the country – at college or working away from the constituency, they won’t be around on a Thursday to vote, even if they were so inclined…I presume that’s why the election was set for a Thursday.