Adrian Kavanagh, 17 November 2010
Red C opinion poll figures for the Donegal South West by-election and the subsequent general election in that constituency provide ill tidings for Fianna Fail but offer very good news for Sinn Fein and Labour in that constituency. But past electoral trends suggest that geographical factors/local voting trends will also need to be taken account of here. This post will look especially at geographical voting trends for the last general election in this constituency, based on an analysis and mapping of tally figures for that election. It suggests that the final result can be predicted based on early tallies by knowing the geography of voting in this constituency.
Not alone do the poll figures suggest that, at a support level of 40% for the by-election poll figures, that Pearse Doherty now looks an extremely strong contender to win this by-election (which would rank as Sinn Fein’s most significant ever electoral success in the Rpublic of Ireland) as against 19% for Brian O’Domhnaill (FF), 15% for Barry O’Neill (FG), 14% for Frank McBrearty (LB), 8% for Thomas Pringle (IND) and 2% for Ann Sweeney (IND), but poll figures relating to voting intentions in the next general election in that constituency suggest that Doherty would comfortably top the poll again (31%). McBrearty would be ranked second highest (18%) of the potential candidates in terms of general election voting intentions, with the combined Fine Gael support estimated at 25% (Dinny McGinley (13%), O’Neill (12%)), and combined Fianna Fail support at 19% (Mary Coughlan (10%), O’Domhnaill (9%)) markign a decline of over 30% on the party’s support levels in this constituency in the 2007 contest. Could local or geographical voting trends skew such results in an actual election? The political climate at present may be such that this might not be the case in the by-election or indeed in the next general election, but a mapping study of localised (electoral division level) voting trends in the last (2007) general election in this constituency suggests there was a strong geographical, or rather friends and neighbours, basis to Donegal South West voting patterns in that contest. This is perhaps not surprising given the sheer areal extent of the constituency – Bundoran in the extreme south of the constituency is over 110km away from Gortahork and Dunfanaghy in the extreme north, while Lifford in the east of the constituency is almost 100km distance away from Glencolumbkille in the west - campaigning and canvassing in such a large constituency offers severe logistical problems to political parties, who will tend to find their candidates polling best in their home or local bases.
If we look at voting patterns for the current front-runner in this constituency, Pearse Doherty, we see a definite friends and neighbours dimension to his 2007 voting patterns, with his strongest support levels being registered in the north-western corner of this constituency, in and around his home base of Gweedore, where he tended to win over 25% of the vote in most of the electoral divisions in this area. The other major cluster of Doherty support is focused on the Lifford area in the east of the constituency, an area running along the border with Northern Ireland. While Doherty polled less well in other parts of the constituency, what is notable here is consistently relatively high levels of Sinn Fein support running across this constituency, with Doherty generally tending to win over 10% in most of the electoral divisions within this constituency; he is capable of pulling out votes from all across the constituency and not just in his local strongholds. Doherty won, on average, 0.85 of a quota (21.2%) in the 2007 contest, the highest share of the vote won by an unsuccessful candidate in any constituency in that election. His failure to win a seat in this contest was put down to “precision Fianna Fail vote management and Fine Gael’s single candidate strategy” by the “Donegal News” (1 June 2007: p13).
Looking at the Fianna Fail support trends for the 2007 contest, what is immediately striking here is the high levels of support enjoyed by the party across the constituency and the especially high levels enjoyed in their candidates’ main bailiwicks – the south of the constituency/Donegal Bay area in the case of poll-topper Mary Coughlan, and the west of the constituency in the case of Pat “The Cope” Gallagher. Support patterns for these two candidates can be viewed in the following maps, with a friends and neighbours coting trend again becoming evident, with strong evidence to suggest the existence of a vote-management policy on the part of Fianna Fail dividing the constituency for campaigning purposes between these two candidates in order to ensure two seats in what was a highly competitive constituency.
Mary Coughlan’s vote pattern shows a strong cluster of high support levels in the south of the constituency and in the immediate Donegal Bay hinterland, with a secondary support base in the east of the constituency encompassing areas proximate to Ballybofey and Lifford. Coughlan’s share of the vote drops sharply some miles north of the Donegal Bay area suggesting a deliberate division of the constituency between her and Gallagher.
Pat “The Cope” Gallagher’s support pattern shows an especial focus on high home base in Dungloe, with his highest support levels recorded in the town and its immediate hinterland, and the more western parts of the constituency, although local competition from McGinley and Doherty spikes his potential support levels in the north western corner of the constituency. His lowest levels of support were recorded in the south and south-west of the constituency, the main support base of his running mate, Coughlan.
Fianna Fail support levels were weakest in the north-western corner of the constituency, where the home bases of the party’s strongest opposition, Doherty and Dinny McGinley, were based.
Looking at support patterns for Fine Gael’s sole candidate, Dinny McGinley, two main clusters of high support for the party emerge. High levels of support exist in the north-west of the constituency, where his political base of Bunbeg is located in the same area as Pearse Doherty’s. But there is a second major cluster of McGinley support in the southern part of the constituency many miles distant from his Bunbeg base, potentially reflecting a “natural” Fine Gael vote in this area and no doubt reflecting the party’s tradition of running a second candidate from the south of the constituency in most elections in this constituecy, but not including the 2007 contest. There may also be family/historical ties between McGinley and this area, not readily apparent to a “non-native” observer, which may also account in part for the high Fine Gael support in this area. Given the threat posed by Pearse Doherty and the tight battle in the constituency, Fine Gael had decided to eschew the party’s usual two-candidate strategy and replace Terence Slowey, the candidate initially selected by the party, with their incumbent deputy, Dinny mcGinley, who had initially announced his intention to retire at that election. Slowey, who was appointed the party’s director of elections, explained this after the results: “When we looked at the two candidate strategy with Dinny coming in on the ticket with me, we realised that woulf fragment the vote in Donegal South West. I had no problems with letting Dinny run alone as long as it meant that Fine Gael would retain the seat and we done just that” (Donegal News, 1 June 2007, p13).
Given the traditional relationship between Fine Gael support and the non-Catholic population, the geography of the non-Catholic population (other religions: mainly in this case Protestant) provides a clue as to the higher level of Fine Gael support in the south of the constituency.
Despite polling poorly, geographical voting trends were similarly evidenced for the Labour and Green party candidates. Seamus Rodgers polled well in his immediate home base of Annagry West in the north west of the constituency, but the main cluster of Labour support was focused some miles to the south – the less defined friends and neighbours effect possibly due to the intense local competition from both Doherty and McGinley, although historical or family ties with the main area of Labour support, which is not readily apparent to a “non-native” may also account for this geographical pattern. A distinctly different geography of Labour support may be expected for the by-election given that Frank McBrearty’s base is located in the Stranorlar electoral area. The support patterns for the Green Party candidate, Sean O Maolchallann, also shows evidence of a friends and neighbours influence given the clustering of his highest support levels in and around his home Falcarragh base in the north-eastern corner of the constituency, although there is also some evidence of an urban effect with higher than average Green support levels being registered in the towns in the south of the constituency.
So what can be concluded from this analysis, or is this simply a case of admiring pretty patterned maps? The main lesson is that geography matters when trying to understand support patterns for parties and candidates. A similar trend should be expected for the by-election with intense competition expected in the north-west where the bases of the main contenders (according to the poll figures and the bookies odds), Doherty and O’Domhnaill (Gortahork) are based. (Interestingly, O’Domhnaill is based in the part of the constituency where Fianna Fail support was weakest in 2007!) Both candidates would, on past support trends for their parties, be expected to poll well across most of the constituency, although the especially high levels of support enjoyed by Doherty in the Ballybofey-Lifford area in 2007 may not be as easily realised due to local competition from McBrearty (Raphoe). McBrearty, a councillor for the Stranorlar electoral area, is the only candidate to be based in the eastern part of the constituency and should be expected to poll very well in this area. O’Neill is the only one the main contenders with a base in the south of the constituency (Ballyshannon) and hence would be expected to poll strongly in this area. Thomas Pringle, an independent county councillor and former Sinn Fein member, who won 2,603 votes when he contested the 2002 General Election in the constituency, is also based in the Donegal electoral area (in Killybegs) and might take some natural Sinn Fein votes in this area from Doherty (which may ultimately return to Doherty in later counts). The other independent candidate, Ann Sweeney, is based in Dinfanaghy in the north-eastern corner of the constituency, close to O’Domhnaill’s Gortahork base and relatively close to the Doherty Maghareclogher base.
Mindful of geographical trends in voting, the early tallies can be looked to in order to provide an idea as to the evential outcome. As the first boxes will be opened for the southern part of the constituency, and in particular the Ballyshannon/Bundoran areas, the local candidate, O’Neill, will need have to poll strongly in this area if he is to entertain hopes of winning the by-election, probably needing to win over 50% of the vote in these boxes. Given his 2007 pattern of support and the fact that this is the area most distant from his home base, this would be likely to be his weakest area in this election and he should expect to fall behind O’Neill in the early boxes. If Doherty outpolls, or comes close to, O’Neill in the first fifteen or twenty boxes to be open, then he is virtually certain to win the by-election and by some distance. To stand a chance of winning the seat, O’Domhnaill would need to outpoll Doherty in these early boxes, drawing on the Coughlan support base in the south of the constituency. If he falls into third place behind O’Neill and Doherty in these early boxes, then a Fianna Fail victory here will be highly unlikely. If O’Domhnaill falls significantly behind O’Neill and Doherty in the Donegal electoral area boxes, and potentially polls below Pringle or McBrearty, then an Electoral Armageddon awaits Fianna Fail in a constituency where the party won over half the vote in 2007.
This post is based on an analysis by Adrian Kavanagh of tally figures published on page 13 of the “Donegal News” (1 June 2007), transforming these polling station-level figures into electoral division-levels and then mapping these. The figures were initially put into Excel format by Mr. Jonathan Davey; many thanks to Jonathan.
My earlier post on this site on the Donegal South West by-election, “Donegal South West by election: The numbers…” , might also be of interest.