Mark is entitled to be pleased. But Donegal is only the sparring match. The stakes have now raised to a critical high for the main bout. If Sinn Fein can’t win big in the general election, they never will. The Donegal sideshow was in some respects, a gift. A blatant gerrymander in delaying the by election by 17 months, the appeal of the “burn the bondholders ” populist shout, a personable well-gelled young candidate with a good community record, I understand all that. Even in the radically different atmosphere of the 2007 general election Pearse Doherty was breathing down Fine Gael’s neck on a higher turnout. Was his smash win mainly down to effective community politics in an area largely left behind by the Tiger? Will the residual appeal of primitive nationalism in the border counties give Sinn Fein a big enough bounce to make some kind of breakthrough on the national stage? Am I alone in my surprise that Fianna Fail didn’t fare even worse? Is the Telegraph’s vox pop typical? These are genuine questions.
One young woman shopping in Donegal Town, who did not want to be named, said she was voting for Sinn Fein despite opposition from her parents who associate the party with the IRA and violent conflict across the border in Northern Ireland. “Things have got to change,” she said.
In the coming weeks or months, will voters think ( wrongly) they have little left to lose and vote in numbers for an Irish Tea Party with attitude? Will SF remain the caucus of the growing numbers of dispossessed or lead a people’s revolt against the bankers’ ramp? They will now have to explain what they would do if they held the balance of power in the next Dail. Mere opposition will be irrelevant. Perhaps it takes the perspective of the Wall St Journal to set the scene.
Sinn Fein is the only party to oppose a push to get Ireland’s deficit to 3% of gross domestic product by 2014. With Fine Gael and the Irish Labour Party supporting the need to consolidate the public finances, this stance may help Sinn Fein lure voters next year who feel they aren’t being offered a real alternative to years of cuts and tax rises by the main parties.
“I think we will get a bounce out of this,” said Pearse Doherty, Sinn Fein’s victorious candidate in Donegal in an interview Thursday, ahead of the poll. “More and more people are coming to us and agreeing with our point of view.”
Others aren’t convinced. David Farrell, head of politics and international relations at University College Dublin, said the party’s economic policies are viewed as unrealistic. He added that its win in Donegal reflects a greater sympathy for the party in counties bordering Northern Ireland than exists elsewhere on the island
Smaller parties such as Sinn Fein are gaining ground collectively, however. In the 1980s, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael between them received roughly 90% of the vote but recent local elections indicate that their share is falling to closer to 50%, with Labour, Sinn Fein, the Green Party and a smattering of smaller groups and independents holding the rest.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London