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Donegal South West – the shape of [some] things to come… November 30, 2010

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, Sinn Féin, The Left.

In a way the Donegal South West byelection, coming as it does after the EU-IMF intervention, is an interesting straw in the wind as to the future shape of the polity. Not too obvious in terms of the outlines though, as no end of people were making clear following the result at the weekend. Donegal South West isn’t the rest of the country. No indeed. It’s not. But it provides an opportunity to examine how various dynamics may play, particularly those extant outside Dublin.

For Fianna Fáil seeing the constituency where the Tánaiste resides have a drop from 51 per cent to 21 per cent must be a clear indication of their fate. If there, then where else? And if replicated, then seriously bad news for the state of FF post February or March 2011.

And even if one seeks to factor in Pearse Doherty’s persona and the hard work of him and his team, the halo effect for Sinn Féin of the Border (I know I’ve half-joked that SF is similar in some ways to – say – the German CSU, a party effectively restricted to a region, but really who would doubt that following the next election they will be returning at least four TDs from those counties), the court case which was an absolute vindication for SF and a raft of other lesser elements that provided the blocks that built this victory one is still left with the conclusion that there’s not much cover for them to hide away from.

The SBP argues in a piece by Niamh Connolly that this means that they’re entering a period ‘which confirmed a likely halving in seat numbers [in Donegal South West, one presumes] and its new status as a transfer-unfriendly party.’

That’s something to consider. Because FF has, as indeed have most other parties, lived or died by transfers. And in recent years it had one particular support in that respect which is now gone, that being the small but not entirely insignificant drift from the Progressive Democrats. Their absence as a political force is likely to have a number of interesting outcomes in the next few months (by the way, does anyone know if Mary Harney is running again? And what of Fiona O’Malley?).

Connolly notes that FF was reassuring its supporters that they’d not sunk to the 17 per cent of the recent Red C poll. Hmmm… well. Yes. And no.

Given that that was a national figure in the Red C poll I think that dipping as low as 21 per cent in a largely rural constituency might well give pause for thought. A further straw in the wind is that polling the week before saw Doherty on 40 per cent and O’Domhnaill of FF on 19 per cent. A two per cent understatement, though naturally voters could have changed their mind in the interim. If the understatement of FF’s fortunes is in the 2 per cent range they’re in deep trouble either way if that is true nationally. I’m not suggesting for a moment that there’s a consequent dip lower in urban constituencies that would provide some sort of balance, merely that this is very very poor indeed and may represent indications of the post-EU/IMF dip some of us have anticipated. Or it may not and may simply be a condition of the constituency itself on this election outing. But I’d tend to think that FF is looking at much worse to come than has been before. It simply can’t walk away from the EU/IMF intervention in the way that it has done from other decisions (think back to Brian Lenihans, to some of us, inexplicably strong economic reputation in the past year or so before things turned sour – inexplicable because many of the most wrongheaded decisions had his fingerprints on them, so to speak. Granted a lot of that was along the lines of ‘we want a saviour’… but even so).

For Fine Gael disappointment. 18.6 per cent is nowhere near where they will have wanted to be. But as the SBP notes sitting FG TD Dinny McGinley has said that he’ll run again, apparently, so no change there. The FG challenger, Barry O’Neill was saying that the Green pull-out/sort of from Government was the reason why the byelection didn’t go his way, as voters registered their dissatisfaction with the government by voting in Doherty in larger numbers. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe not.

There’s also angst for the Labour Party whose Frank McBrearty barely got 10 per cent, coming in behind Independent Thomas Pringle. That 10 per cent might well represent a three fold increase for Labour, and their best result in years, but it’s not exactly the stuff of which a red, or is it pink, tide are made of. Can’t help feeling though that Labour are squeezed in this particular instance in a constituency that has proven resistant to their blandishments.

The Pringle vote is interesting though. That’s an impressively high showing for an Independent – who to judge from his electoral material was left of centre – one wonders are others looking at it and calibrating their own future electoral prospects accordingly. Pringle’s own history doesn’t provide perhaps quite enough clues to say for sure whether this is a dynamic that may be operative elsewhere. But if it were, and if Independents were able to capitalise on the collapse, or significant reduction of the FF vote, then the shape of the new Dáil may be somewhat more variegated than hitherto anticipated. It also has implications for ULA and independent and smaller left parties. Potentially positive implications. So much depends, obviously, on where the Fianna Fáil vote as was is going. Clearly in this instance it went to SF – largely. But if it’s also going more to Independents rather than, say, Labour – and with the caveat that this is probably a dynamic more in operation outside of Dublin, then that has significant implications as to their presence in the future. And it may demonstrate that those formerly FF voters will go a couple of steps, even towards Independents, but may find going a couple of steps more to Labour more difficult. Again, I don’t want to overstate this. The local conditions may have shaped that outcome more than can be determined.

And so to Sinn Féin. Not hitting the quota, but not needing to either. Back up to five TDs, their 2002-2007 tally. Able to dispel in part the mutterings in the 2007 period and after that they had done as well as they could do and were now in something of a retreat. This, remember, was one of the seats tipped for them to do well in in 2007. That it took a further three and a half years suggests both the optimism of the original schedule and the need to work hard on the ground to expand the vote. Which contains a lesson for those presently incumbent SF TDs. This has to point to one or two gains in the next election, or perhaps more if that FF collapse occurs more widely. But it also points to a reality that was for far too long ignored, particularly in the case of SF – but also more widely abroad. Political progress is a slow and painstaking process. It’s filled with defeats and setbacks and only occasional victories. Winning seats is hard. The first time an SF candidate contested the seat was in 1987 and then they gained a mere 4 per cent of the vote (something I’d forgotten until I went looking at the stats was that Séamus Rodgers of SFWP and later WP and later still of DL won up to 9 per cent at various elections through to 1992, later still as the LP candidate – and as recently as 2007 – he received in or around 3 per cent at successive elections. Interesting to reflect on where at least some of the larger vote went to).

Of course all this may crash and burn elsewhere, but certain dynamics are of interest. The positive SF result is clearly of significant benefit to them elsewhere. Amusing to see Gerry Adams in every photo, as was indeed his right. And sensible too given the situation ahead. Clearly his shift South hasn’t impacted negatively so far and may in fact have further assisted in raising the SF profile, something that will be of benefit to many of their candidates. For the LP, more to do. Much more. For FG, hold the line, and for FF try to determine where the line actually is.

Meanwhile, one small thought. If the next government last five years – another not entirely likely outcome, but not beyond the bounds of possibility – well then, we’re looking at Election 2016.

Crushing symbolism and of a sort that might not be to the taste of Fianna Fáil one little bit when the day comes around.


1. Paddy Healy - November 30, 2010

From Paddy Healy 086-4183732
There are interesting pointers in the results of the Donegal South West By Election in addition to the first preference percentages.
As the combined vote of O’Neill +O’Domhnall was less than the O’Doherty total, O’Doherty was elected without reaching the Quota on the fouth count.
Fianna Fail fell behind Fine Gael on this count
On the final count, the combined FF+FG total was less than the Quota of 50%+1vote and less than the Sinn Fein total.(On First Count SF+Lab+LeftIndependent=60%)
Mc Brearty transfer to Fine Gael was 26% as against 43% to Sinn Fein. This was much less than a traditional Fg/Lab coalition transfer. The transfers from McBrearty and from Pringle to Fianna Fail were 8% and 12% respectively. This is less than half the Fianna Fail percentage of Poll on the first count. This indicates that Fianna Fail will suffer even more on crucial late counts than on first count in the next election. Labour and Left Independent transfers to Sinn Feinn worked well exceeding 40% in both cases.
The dog that didn’t bark in the night—-
Left Independent Thomas Pringle was not squeezed by Sinn Fein or by Labour.In the Spring-tide election Labour squeezed all other lefts. In the coming election the defection from Fianna Fail will be so great that left independents and Sinn Fein will be lifted as well as Labour. This augurs well for the prospects of the recently launched Unite Left Alliance in the next election. A Labour/Sinn Fein/Left majority may yet be possible on the numbers. The next election is likely to take place after the budget cuts are implemented. The defection from Fianna Fail will be all the greater


2. Pidge - November 30, 2010

Maybe I’m underestimating the anger or mood for change out there, but I imagine that plenty of people who say that they won’t vote FF again will vote for FF candidates, in a sort of parish pump meets doublethink kind of way.

Say in Donegal, for example, there could be plenty of people who didn’t and won’t vote for Fianna Fáil, but who will vote for a Blaney or Coughlan. The effect of “the local man” is always going to favour parties like FF, and hold back Labour and the like.


Joe - November 30, 2010

I’m with the Cruiser on Haughey on this. Not till I see FF at the crossroads at midnight with a silver bullet between the eyes and a wooden stake through the heart will I believe we are done with them. Those fookers are the undead. The Donegal result wasn’t half bad for them. It was a byelection so their vote was bound to fall. Come the general they will expect a decent increase. On the plus side, Donegal is in its own bubble compared with the rest of the country (see recent referendum results). So the hope is that any relatively benign result there for FF will not be replicated elsewhere.


3. Crocodile - November 30, 2010

Dermaot Ahern and Rory O’Hanlon not running again – two more FF vote-getters in border constituencies.


irishelectionliterature - November 30, 2010

O’Hanlons retirement is no surprise, The Ahern one though is. Hes only 55 , although the decision has been taken in part on medical grounds.
To date the only other FF retirements are Tom Kitt and Bertie Ahern. There are plenty out there yet to announce, the likes of
Sean Ardagh ,Mary O’Rourke , Frank Fahey, Peter Kelly, Michael Woods, Noel Treacy and Michael Kitt.


que - December 1, 2010

Bertie Ahern has confirmed retirement?


4. Tomboktu - November 30, 2010

by the way, does anyone know if Mary Harney is running again?

In Dublin MW, a number of the parties have an arrangement for taking down each other’s election posters within the deadline, and swapping them back to their original owners later. After the last general election, Richard Harney (her brother) said that they didn’t need her posters back as she would not be running again. (At the time I wondered if that meant an interest in being European Commissioner.)

(Although she is not her brother’s keeper, it is interesting to note that he has been seen with the local ex-PD and now-FG councillor, Tony Delaney.)


WorldbyStorm - November 30, 2010

Interesting. Thanks Tomboktu.


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