Swotting the SF challenge in Donegal SW and beyond

Firstly the threats and weaknesses. Obviously, Sinn Féin are, and are maybe always going to be, dogged by the legacy of the IRA’s role in the conflict. That’s not going to go away.

At the same time the historical impact of Section 31 is probably still the mitigating factor when it comes to attracting transfers and Sinn Féin’s difficulty in converting first preferences into seats. It is often forgotten that Sinn Féin members were banned from the media under Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act 1960 from 1971 to 1993 which was rigorously and aggressively self-policed by the media. Given the minimal profile of Sinn Féin for most of the 1960s, only those in their mid-30s have grown up with Sinn Féin on television. Anyone over 35 years old had no effective exposure to Sinn Féin spokespersons until after they gained the right to vote. Even then, many of those under the age of 40 grew up around adults who had no media exposure to Sinn Féin members due to the ban. The effectiveness of the ban is such that even politically savvy 50 and 60 somethings in the Republic are not conscious today of it having been in place and hence don’t see any reason for introspective criticism of their political attitudes and how they were formed. Arguably, this is a contributing factor in the limited transfers to Sinn Féin and is one that has been as impossible to overcome as the legacy of the IRA’s military campaign.

A major weakness in the Donegal SW constituency is the strength of Fianna Fáil first preference, which was over 50% in the last election. While it may provide a good media angle to suggest the seat is winnable for Sinn Féin, particularly in the light of Pearse Doherty’s role in forcing the holding of the election, we have yet to see the extent to which opinion polls translate to actual votes. Anything less than a Fianna Fáil meltdown could be claimed as a moral victory. Even an apparent Fianna Fáil meltdown to 30% of first preferences in Donegal SW could still translate to a win if disgruntled voters divert their first preference elsewhere as a protest but stay faithful with their second preference.

Strengths? In some ways the obvious strength is the role Pearse Doherty and Sinn Féin played in forcing the by-election in the first place (particularly since he has been the candidate in the past and acted as a proxy constituency representative in the Oireachtas). In a constituency with such traditionally high support for Fianna Fáil, a reluctance to switch to Fine Gael may see those that vote consider giving a first preference to Sinn Féin or Labour as less of an outright betrayal of Fianna Fáil. Starting from a much higher base than Labour, any considerable swing of disaffected or tactical votes to Pearse Doherty could be enough to give him the seat.

And the opportunities? In many ways, Sinn Féin have everything to play for in the run up to the coming general election and the by-election has more value as a test run than the by-election result having intrinsic importance. Past false dawns with regard to electoral success in the Republic have largely occurred where political developments in the North were considered likely to produce political capital that could be cashed in during elections in the Republic. The exchange rate has been poor to date, but the current crisis may be opening out an opportunity for Sinn Féin to present itself as a distinctive, energetic platform as opposed to what increasingly looks like the passive lethargy of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour.

The current interplay between Fine Gael and Labour is providing an interesting sub-plot to all this.  Fine Gael actually had the means to force the governing coalition’s hand on the by-elections through ending pairing arrangements. With a minimum amount of political will and leadership, they could have achieved this fairly quickly. Yet, Labour quickly and dismissively pulled the rug from under Fine Gael’s feet on that occasion. The appetite for the by-elections appeared mysteriously absent from both parties. Obviously, the Greens also have had, but haven’t used their ultimate sanction of simply withdrawing support for the government, but you’d have to wonder if the Greens have any immediate future in representative politics after the next election.

Despite a sudden conversion to the litigious route, Fine Gael appear suspiciously averse to a general election. Collectively, both Labour and Fine Gael had access to enough levers of engagement to have effectively brought the government down before now. Presumably, Sinn Féin will emphasise this on the doorsteps – clearly there is broader tactical capital in emphasising the corporate behaviour of the mainstream parties if Sinn Féin is to create a substantive political platform to attract votes, transfers (critically) and an end-product in seats. Given that it was Sinn Féin who managed to force the holding of the by-election via the High Court, it shouldn’t be difficult to highlight the pointed failure of the ‘Opposition’ to effectively oppose the governing coalition. Similarly the indecisive ending of pairing can be dismissed as an exercise in optics by Fine Gael and cynicism by Labour.

The most remarkable oversight, though, appears to be the inability to address the legacy of the Willie O’Dea fiasco. What isn’t in dispute is that Willie O’Dea made a claim against an electoral candidate for another party (in this case, significantly influencing the disinterest of the other parties, a Sinn Féin candidate). Despite having swore an affidavit that he didn’t make the claims to a journalist, a subsequent recording proved that he did. His later claim that this was firstly, an error of memory, then that it was based on Garda intelligence was not substantiated but provides a pretext for exemption from the 1923 Electoral Law by which an Electoral Court would have to remove O’Dea from his seat and ban him from the Oireachtas for five years. Oddly, nor has much attention been given to the context of his disclosure of Garda Intelligence to a journalist (surely a breach of the 1963 Official Secrets Act on the part of both O’Dea and the Garda). The implications of a successful conviction on either charge would see O’Dea forefeit his seat, if indeed he could brazen it out once charges were brought (which he no doubt would). Yet he at least has been re-assured that he has no perjury case to answer. Why have the opposition not fully explored the political implications of all of this? On each count, O’Dea, superficially at least, appears guilty – ignorance is not usually an acceptable defence.

Promoting a legal challenge to O’Dea’s continued presence in the Oireachtas would serve multiple purposes for the party. Firstly, it would further demonstrate that Sinn Féin, unlike the lethargic opposition, are committed to forcing a General Election and a new consensus and mandate to dealing with the current crisis. There is surely significant political value in demonstrating that, even with a low representative base, Sinn Féin is capable of dismantling an unpopular governing coalition that the main opposition parties, despite public protestations to the contrary, have been ineffective in forcing out of power. Secondly, and just as usefully, it would keep the behaviour of O’Dea and Fianna Fáil dirty tricks in the public eye, on the eve of what is likely to be a series of elections. 

Lastly (and most speculatively), in terms of the economy, the international attitude towards Ireland may well be informed by the total lack of energy being shown by the body politic. The passive acceptance of the government (and by tacit acceptance, the opposition) of any and all international instructions is perhaps the worst message the markets are getting. Energy, assertiveness, aggression – they are more likely qualities to push the state through the current crisis. A vigorous and effective Sinn Féin challenge may shake some of the lethargy from the political system in the Republic. This time, something has to break.

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  • Mick Fealty

    I’m hoping to get down there on Sunday 22nd, just before the election. But I would say the decisive factors are local, rather than purely national.

    The key for me is will FG pick up the seat in front of SF (who I expect to pick up a lot of the disaffected FF vote). We should remember too that DSW is probably* the most Protestant constituency in the state.

    Important questions concern: the residual strength of the FG, particularly in Finn Valley, where SF are still largely tarnished with an IRA brush; and without McGinley who had a big personal vote in the west of the county what kind of vote can O’Neill from the ‘deep south’ expect to pick up.

    PS, I have a speculative post waiting to be written on FG’s election nerves shortly…

    *I’ve not backed that assertion up with research btw, so I’ll gladly be contradicted…

  • Ulick

    The obvious strength missed above their candidate. Going by their performance on the Vincent Browne show last night, FF, Lab & FG have put forward incoherent muppets. McBrearty especially was good value for a laugh though Doherty having to explain bond yields to him was cringe-worthy. No Frank they don’t cost 8 euro each that’s the interest payable on them. As for his ramblings about “the wave”…

    Pearse Doherty was head and shoulders above the other three last night, if you don’t believe me check it out:


  • fin

    I think your right Mick, I was going to reply with either Monaghan or Dublin as a close competitor, but googled first


    and its close between Donegal and Monaghan, yet for many years we had Jim White as TD in Donegal and I can’t recall any serious blueshirt or Protestant TD in Monaghan, thou the County town has some interesting monuments

  • Ulick

    “I can’t recall any serious blueshirt or Protestant TD in Monaghan”

    Seymour Crawford is currently TD for Cavan-Monaghan.

  • propaganda

    Pearse Doherty from that performance would win the
    by-election by a landslide. In my opinion SF could use that momentum to run 2 candidates in Donegal SW in a general election. 2 SF and 1 FG the end result.
    Though judging it would be Mc.Ginley again for FG.

  • fin

    Bugger, you’re right Ulick and a blueshirt aswell so doubly caught!!

  • Ulick

    Aye, just a pity it’s pretty much impossible to pick up TV3 in Donegal even though I have it loud and clear in Belfast.

  • Ulick

    Dublin undoubtedly contains the most Protestants but obviously with the most larger population it wouldn’t be the “most Protestant” in terms of overall percentage – that would be Donegal easily. Although most might assume Cavan-Monaghan would be next “most Protestant” at a guess I’d say it would be in the sunny south-East, either Wicklow or Wexford – traditionally the area outside Ulster with the most Protestants.

  • John Ó Néill

    I just didn’t want to over-egg Doherty as a candidate relative to people simply voting along party lines – he was equally impressive as gaeilgeon Newstalk the other evening. Definitely a future Dail leader, at least. But whether people (in this election) will stop voting for the party banner rather than the candidate will be another interesting angle. The by-election will produce a TD who gets at most a few months before the general election at which Doherty will take a seat, hence it is, in some ways, a side issue for him personally.

  • fin

    Thanks for the link Ulick, TV3 is even more snowy here in Croydon, jeez the people of Donegal aren’t being given much of a choice, apart from Pearse, its a FFer whose new so its not his fault, a FGer repeating party mantras and Labour doing a good impersonation of Ian Paisley by repeatedly shouting out when others are speaking.
    Unfortunately the good people of Donegal are a tribal lot so who knows what boxes will get filled in on the day and in what order

  • White Horse

    I genuinely felt that the Fianna Fail candidate was the most impressive last night. He seemed dignified and loyal to the realities. The others were making cheap shots. Doherty looked a bit like a young Adams, with populist principles that wouldn’t pass any meaningful test, and too much desire to control rather than honour his esteemed company. Such people have agendas well beyond their abilities and few will be quaking in their boots if the electorate abandon the traditional route.

  • Tom


    I heard to FF candidate on newstalk radio the other day.

    He made a complete ass of trying to wrap the green flag around himself.

    The listeners texts tore him to shreads.

    No, the day for this kind of gombeen FF politician has liong passed.

  • Wilde Rover

    It was interesting to read the number of commenters on P.ie who, despite themselves, were won over by Doherty.

    What the hell were Labour thinking putting forward the Eight Euro Bond Eejit? With the talk of the country only having 60 days of money left and a byelection where the SF candidate seems like the only one with a grasp of basic economics it looks like we are entering Bizzaro World.

  • Cormac Mac Art

    Its a shame, really. I’d have no problem voting for Doherty or any other candidate of his calibre, but for the fact that he’s SF. I cannot vote for a party that thinks the IRA are a sound bunch of lads. That’s my line in the sand; given that SF have only four seats in the Dail, it seems to be that of much of the country as well.

    By the way, John, I never vote for a party, only for whoever seems to me the least-worst candidate.

  • Gerry Lvs Castro

    ‘Pearse Doherty was head and shoulders above the other three last night’

    Fair comment Ulick — can’t argue with that. Doherty’s achilles heel / discomfort moment was when Browne threw in the curve ball about Adams and his baggage being the party leader.

    If SF are to move beyond their core constituencies they need to ditch the likes of Adams and move forward with candidates untarnished by what is an extremely grubby past.

  • John Ó Néill

    Update on Donegal SW: some of the papers will run a Red C poll tomorrow although it’s already up on p.ie.
    It has Doherty (SF) on 40%, O Domhnaill (FF) on 19%, O’Neill (FG) 15% and McBrearty (Lab) 15%, Pringle (Ind) 8%, Sweeney (Ind) 2%. On second pref, Doherty and McBrearty would both be well ahead as well. Margin of error (at 95% confidence) is 4.4%. Obviously, as a single constituency by-election poll it needs a healthy pinch of salt, but Paddy Power now have Pearse Doherty at 1/8 to win.

  • wee buns

    …but what a kick in the spuds for FF that would be….