Donegal South West: Emergence of Sinn Fein Nua?

Now whilst Donegal is not Ireland, for Sinn Fein this byelection victory has the potential to become a game-changing moment. They now have one of those two predicted Donegal seats.  In fact, Aidan Kavanagh’s Red C extrapolations underestimated Sinn Fein’s appeal to the Donegal South West electorate and exaggerated the strength of the mainstream parties.

Pearse Doherty grabbed 40% of all first preferences, and 60% of all first and second preferences, something that’s previously been unheard of in the politics of the Republic. An significant cultural barrier has been breached. Doherty has shipped in votes from parts of south and west Donegal that barely voted Sinn Fein before.

But there are couple of things worth noting. One is that unusually for an Irish election, this one was clinched through an air war rather than on-the-ground. Usually during an general election candidates get very little access to the media, and the doorstep is crucial. But this roster of candidates got the full exposure of the press. And Doherty came in head and shoulders above the rest.

Now this is not surprising as it first may seem. As well as being young, personable and relatively (for a politician) economically literate, this was the candidate’s third bite of the Donegal electoral cherry. He’d nearly broken through in the 2004 Euros, and in the last general election. By contrast the others were relative ingenues.

As for the other parties, all day political journalists have been firefighting political spin. Labour was an easy target, not because they’d done badly (they pretty much trebled their vote), but because they’d been guilty of overplaying a hand which simply does not run as far as Donegal and suggesting they’d get between 15-20k, making their otherwise respectable 10k look derisory.

The so-called Gilmore Gale trifurcated and blew Doherty, Pringle and McBrearty a whole new bunch of fresh voters in what is normally an incredibly small ‘c’ conservative constituency.

Ironically, and on balance, the other marginal winner in this is probably Fine Gael. In 2007, the party veteran Dinny McGinley reversed his plans for retirement when it became obvious that without him standing Doherty would takeover his strongly loyal voter base in the western Gaeltacht area, losing the seat for the party for the foreseeable future.

Ballyshannon Councillor Barry O’Neill was probably the least known of all the candidates, and managed to run in in second place (if only by 100 or so votes). While they’ll almost certainly run McGinley again in February, O’Neill has demonstrated there remains a significant base for the party to build upon.

As for Fianna Fail, well they’d already discounted the loss of Pat the Cope’s seat. Keeping a quote for Tanaiste Mary Coughlan was the aim here. Coming in second in first preferences at a time when the country is going through its most traumatic period for generations is most certainly job jobbed. The priority between now and the general election will be asset preservation right across the state.

So back to the question currently in hand, will this give Sinn Fein a bounce in a February/March General Election?

Well, it certainly does a couple things that should benefit the party. Doherty is a class act compared to the rest of the parliamentary party, and it will take down their average age by a decade or two. That may also improve the appeal of the party to a newer younger audience.

If there are to be any signs of momentum in the General Election keep an eye out for hard fought breakthroughs in Dublin (where Labour are currently strong), Cork, Meath West, and on a really good day, Mayo. There’s always a possibility too that Toireasa Ferris might be prevailed upon to run in Kerry North.

Yet this is not the critical election. Beefing up the parliamentary team and building its plausibility to a wider electorate is the major job in hand.  Come the next term, they may be the only party to share the opposition benches with Fianna Fail (for the first time since Dev’s early, more tolerant, days), which may explain some of the complementary noises that began emanating from Minister Éamon Ó Cuív this afternoon.

That would give them a clear position from which to attack anything the new government does. And it may give them time to find the answer of how they get beyond the narrow corridor that all minority parties have found themselves in and into the real halls of political power in Ireland over the last 25 years. But for that they will need more than good candidates.

Yet the key insight from Darwin’s evolutionary theory is not that fittest or the strongest survive, but those who prove most adaptable to the demands of the ever evolving world around them.  Sinn Fein need to develop a party wide commitment to playing the new game in town: the constitutional politics of the Republic of Ireland.

It remains to be seen whether the old leadership, steeped as it is in the revolutionary politics of west Belfast, is adaptable enough to fulfill the reasonable demands of a successful generation of new southern Sinn Fein politicians.

They will not be as easy to replace as the member for West Belfast.

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