#GE16 #Donegal: Big push from ‘the Cope’ should ensure Fianna Fáil takes one back…

Donegal

DonegalCurrent TDs

Donegal South West

Pearse Doherty TD (Sinn Féin), Dinny McGinley TD (Fine Gael), Thomas Pringle TD (Independent)

Donegal North East

Pádraig Mac Lochlainn TD (Sinn Féin), Charlie Mc Conalogue TD, (Fianna Fáil), Joe Mc Hugh TD (Fine Gael)

Total seats in 2016 General Election: 5

Donegal is a new 5 seat constituency which has been created by the amalgamation of two former three seat constituencies. Additionally, almost 9,000 people from south of the county have been unceremoniously dumped into the new Sligo-Leitrim and West Cavan constituency (now, there’s a name that trips off the tongue!) The exiled population come from the towns of Ballyshannon, Bundoran and surrounding areas.

Long serving Fine Gael TD Dinny McGinley announced his retirement leaving the five sitting TDs fighting for the five seats on offer.

Main Areas:

  • Letterkenny, population – 19,588
  • Buncrana, population – 6,839
  • Ballybofey–Stranorlar, population – 4,852
  • Donegal Town, population – 2,607
  • Carndonagh, population – 2,534
  • Lifford, population – 1,658
  • Bunbeg – Derrybeg, population – 1,553

Candidates:

  • Pearse Doherty TD, Sinn Féin (Glenties area)
  • Padraig Mac Lochlainn TD, Sinn Féin (Inishowen area)
  • Cllr. Gary Doherty, Sinn Féin (Stranolar area)
  • Pat the Cope Gallagher, Fianna Fáil (Glenties area)
  • Charlie McConalogue TD, Fianna Fail (Innishowen area)
  • Paddy Harte Jnr, Fine Gael (Letterkenny area)
  • Thomas Pringle TD, Independent (Donegal – Killybegs area)
  • Cllr. Niamh Kennedy, Independent Alliance (Donegal – Killybegs area)
  • Cllr. Dessie Shiels, Independent (Letterkenny area)
  • Minister Joe McHugh TD, Fine Gael (Letterkenny area – Milford Peninsula)
  • Cllr. Ian McGarvey, Independent (Letterkenny area – Milford Peninsula)
  • Paula Flanagan, Green Party (Glenties areas)
  • Cllr. Frank McBrearty Jnr, Independent (Stranolar area)

This constituency is shaping up to be a humdinger and almost anything could happen. At least eight candidates have some prospects of success and only two can be said to be almost certain to win a seat. With so many candidates contesting, getting into the frame (top five) on first count will be vital.

Let’s start by looking at the geography. Donegal can be broken into distinct areas which each have a unique identity and strongly supported local champions – the Irishowen Peninsula, the Milford (Fanad) Peninsula, the greater Letterkenny area, Glenties encompassing much of the Donegal Gaeltacht, Donegal Town to the south west and finally the Finn Valley area around the twin towns of Ballyboffey – Stranolar.

Letterkenny is by far the largest urban area in the county. It is an added complication that none of the main parties are fielding a candidate from this town.

Due to the balance of populations and strong local voting patterns it’s likely that at least 2 TDs will be elected from each of the old constituencies. As the population in Donegal North East slightly exceeds that of the more southern constituency, candidates in this region may have an advantage in the battle for supremacy. 

Sinn Féin have been riding high of late – though local talk of the party achieving over 40% in opinion polls should be taken with a large pinch of salt. Sinn Féin is an established brand in the county and has already won over the kind of voters it will attract for the first time in other constituencies. 

Any additional gains over 30% will be hard won. Such is the party’s confidence that it is running three geographically well distributed candidates and can talk of taking three seats.

Vote management to secure multiple seats is a challenge that Sinn Féin hasn’t faced before. Voters aren’t used to having a choice amongst Sinn Féin candidate and it will be very interesting to see the impact of this.

Pearse Doherty is a national political star who’s very personable and will command support right across the county particularly amongst young people, floating voters and those in areas that do not have their own Sinn Féin candidate – such as Letterkenny.

In north Donegal Padraig MacLochlainn has been one of the more high profile Sinn Féin TDs of the past five years.  His home base of Buncrana on the Inishowen peninsula will give him a strong foundation. However he doesn’t have the star power of Pearse, and populist voters will be hard to control. 

The third Sinn Féin candidate Gary Doherty also has some attractive points but there’s less votes in the Finn Valley than Inishowen and he has significantly less name recognition.

Pearse Doherty is almost certain to top the poll and to be elected with a surplus.  His transfers should keep MacLochlainn in a clear second place within sight of the finishing line. Critically that will leave two Sinn Féin candidates still requiring transfers. In this scenario it is hard to see the second Doherty actually getting into the frame ahead of so many other candidates.

Running three candidates is a safe strategy for a party likely to secure over 2 quotas and it may pay dividends next time.

Fine Gael’s strategists are extremely concerned by a likely slide in the party vote there and have long since given up the pretence of winning two seats. Paddy Harte was a late addition to their ticket. Sometimes selecting two candidates and dividing the vote equally can backfire if there’s only one possible seat available.

It is unlikely that Fine Gael’s Joe Mc Hugh and Paddy Harte Jnr will be victims of this trap. While McHugh may have faced some ridicule at being a Minister for the Gaeltacht who doesn’t speak Irish, he has used the position to deliver for his native county and he should be well ahead of his running mate.

In a sprawling 5 seat constituency it will be very hard for one party candidate to cover all the ground so it seems that running a second candidate to act as a sweeper is sensible. A vote share percentage in the mid to late teens between both candidates should see McHugh into the frame and likely to be safely in the top five once his running mate is excluded.

McHugh will benefit from being the incumbent, having access to Letterkenny, a small but reliable core vote for Fine Gael and finally a factor that shouldn’t be underestimated in a larger field – personality. McHugh’s got a good likeability factor.

A third candidate who’s good in the likability stakes is Fianna Fáil’s Charlie McConalogue. He’s also done well in the luck stakes in this political career to date benefitting from the late withdrawal of former deputy Niall Blaney in 2011 to go from the role of sweeper to flagbearer and ultimately taking the only seat for Fianna Fáil in Donegal.

While he is based in the far north near Carndonagh there is a strong party vote in the Inishowen peninsula which will give him a solid base. He’s also cleverly employed some of former Tanaiste Mary Coughlan’s political staff for the past five years which may give him some traction amongst her old supporters – particularly those with no love for running mate Pat the Cope Gallagher. 

In Donegal South West Pat the Cope Gallagher is a legendary constituency worker and has an insatiable appetite for politics. “The Cope” is a Donegal phenomenon and will leave no stone unturned in the quest for votes. Fearing the Pierce Doherty popularity in his home area he will raid into erstwhile McConalogue territory in north east Donegal.

He will get some support from Gaeltacht voters in Fanad, the former Blaney faction and, unusually for a Fianna Fáiler, he can be expected to attract some transfers from Sinn Féin as his family has solid republican credentials. This may prove vital in later counts when the elimination of the third Sinn Féin candidate will effectively decide the election outcome. 

Fianna Fáil have two relatively evenly matched candidates, whichever gets ahead of the other will definitely win a seat and many party activists locally would favour the Cope for this. However in a crowded field it would be foolish to underestimate McConalogue’s personality and likability factors.

If the local election performance of Fianna Fáil can be repeated then both candidate should be in the frame in the first count with just over 2/3s of a quota each. Significantly both candidates will need transfers and they both appeal to different voters.

There’s a significant independent vote base in Donegal. This may even be close to the largest segment in the constituency. The most high profile independent candidate is Deputy Thomas Pringle who benefited from the Fianna Fáil meltdown in 2011 to slip into the last seat in Donegal South West.

As a TD he’s campaigned on left wing issues and does not appear to enjoy a great reputation for delivering on bread and butter local constituency matters. As a left wing independent he will stand out from the other independents in the constituency, but he is also vulnerable to leaking support to Sinn Féin.

Furthermore, Cllr Niamh. Kennedy of Shane Ross’s Independent Alliance is also in his backyard. She topped the poll in Killybegs in the local elections and will undoubtedly impact Pringle’s local vote. Being the highest profile woman in the field will also be to her advantage.

Kennedy and Pringle may nullify each other and while either could potentially attract support to get into the frame they may both be behind the two Fianna Fáilers and be looking to play catch up.

Cllr. Frank McBrearty Jnr is another independent candidate who could get up to 4,000 votes on a good day, but that won’t be enough to be credibly fighting for the last seat. 

At the northern end of the constituency there are at least two other independent candidates from Letterkenny; Ian McGarvey possibly the oldest candidate in the country and Cllr. Denis Shiels who should poll reasonably strongly. Even with a solid vote Shiels does not have enough of a support base to get into the final shake up.

Ultimately despite there being lots of independent voters, when it comes to later preferences they are likely to scatter to the four corners and with so many party candidates falling short of a quota until late in the day it’s likely that no one independent will consolidate support to get into the final seat.  

Watch out for: The Cope Gallagher ignoring any and all territory divides within the Fianna Fáil organisation as he fights to ensure a Lazarus like comeback. Sinn Féin’s efforts to implement a strategy to maximise its seat return.  Transfer patterns on count day could see even 10th preferences proving valuable.

Our prediction:   P. Doherty (Sinn Féin), MacLochlainn (Sinn Féin), McHugh (Fine Gael,) Cope Gallagher (Fianna Fáil) and McConalogue (Fianna Fáil)

Statler and Waldorf are two former political party muppets who have 30 years’ experience in Irish politics.  They now specialise in providing analysis from the sidelines.