Adrian Kavanagh, 5 November 2010
On the basis of the most recent general election results in Donegal South West, this might be expected to be one constituency where Fianna Fail could actually have a realistic chance of winning a by-election (thus becoming the first government party to do so since Noel Treacy won the Galway East by-election in 1982), but a study of local election result trends in the three electoral areas that this Dail constituency is comprised of – Donegal (Town), Glenties and Stranorlar – offers a more sobering portrait for Fianna Fail and offers Fine Gael hope that they could be the party to win this by-election, thus offering prospects of yet another electoral success in western Ireland for the “Kenny Krusade”.
Of all the constituencies in Ireland, “in theory” Donegal South West should be one of the constituencies where the party would have the least fear of facing a by-election in, with perhaps only Laois-Offaly offering more favourable ground for the party to fight a by-elections in. The party put in one of their strongest performances in 2007 nationally here, with only Laois-Offaly, Donegal North East, Cork North-West and Kildare South comparing as favourably. In the 2007 General Election, Fianna Fail won over half of all the votes cast in this constituency (50.5%) with Mary Coughlan getting over the quota (26.4%) on Count 1 and Pat “The Cope” Gallagher (24.1%) coming very near to this. Fine Gael’s Dinny McGinley won 23.0% of the first preference votes, getting over the quota with Labour and Green transfers, while Pearse Doherty of Sinn Fein won 21.2% of the vote – the highest vote share won by any Sinn Fein candidate in the 2007 General Election and the second highest general election vote share won by any Sinn Fein candidate since the 1920s, only exceeded by Martin Ferris 2002 result in Kerry North. Labour (2.8%) and the Green Party (1.4%) were well off the pace in this contest, as was the sole indepdendent candidate (1.0%).
The most recent electoral contest in this constituency was the 2009 local elections and these figures offer less comforting news for Fianna Fail. The Donegal South West constituency is comprised of the electoral areas of Donegal (Town), Glenties and Stranorlar. Fianna Fail had polled very well in these electoral areas in the 2004 local elections (despite a generally poor national performance by the party in those elections), winning 46.3% of the total number of votes cast in these electoral areas, as against 23.6% for Fine Gael, 14.7% for Sinn Fein (for whom Pearse Doherty was a candidate in Glenties), 1.9% for Labour, 1.7% for the Green Party and 11.8% for independents/others. However in the 2009 local elections, Fianna Fail support dropped significantly in these electoral areas and the level of this decline far outstripped the national trend for the party in these elections , with the party support falling by 4,339 votes (with share of the vote down by 16.9%). The main gains in this area was made by the main opposition parties – Fine Gael’s number of votes increased by 2,044 (up by 1.6%) and Labour’s number of votes increased by 2,794 (up by 6.7%) – and especially the independents and others grouping (votes up by 5,667, share of vote up by 11.9%). Sinn Fein gained an extra 316 votes relative to their 2004 result, marking an actual 1.3% decline in the party’s share of the vote between 2004 and 2009. It is worth noting that this decline can be probably attributed to Doherty not running as a local election candidate in Glenties in 2009 (having been elected as a Senator in 2007) where the party share of the vote fell by 2.7% (although Therese Gallagher did hold the Sinn Fein seat here).
The current bookies’ favourite, Pearse Doherty, has proven himself to be significant vote-getter and he was undoubtedly the most unlucky candidate in the 2007 election, with a vote share that would have seen him comfortably elected in most other constituencies and would have pushed him over the quota in a 4-seat constituency and well over the quota in a 5-seat constituency. While it is dangerous to predict results in Dail elections on the basis of local elections, there must be concern over the fact that the Sinn Fein vote did not increase between 2004 and 2009 at the same time as Fine Gael and Labour support was. Doherty in Donegal South West will probably a more transfer-friendly candidate than Sinn Fein candidates tend to be but the likelihood is that he may need to win over 30% of the first preference votes unless he can take a significant share of Fianna Fail transfers if the Fianna Fail candidate is eliminated ahead of Fine Gael’s Barry O’Neill. If he is to beat O’Neill, who would seem to be his main competition for this seat, he will need to poll a very high personal vote from his Glenties base – at the same time as O’Neill will be reliant on strong local support from the Donegal Town end of the constituency to keep him in contention. Former Sinn Fein party member and current independent councillor for the Donegal (Town) electoral area, Thomas Pringle, who ran in the 2002 General Election but not in 2007, is contesting this election and threatens to take “natural Sinn Fein” votes off Doherty in the southern end of the constituency. On the other hand, his participation in this election might increase the turnout level of “natural Sinn Fein” supporters in the Donegal Town end of this constituency – and a good chunk of these votes might be expected to revert to Doherty at a later count.
Frank McBrearty’s success in Stranorlar was the main reason for Labour’s improved fortunes in Donegal South West in 2009. The party support levels here are still too low to expect even a Gilmore Gale to see Labour taking this seat, but the main interest here will lie in studying the degree to which the Labour vote is growing – can it increase to a sufficient level (between 10 and 15 per cent) where the party might have a realistic chance of competing for a seat at the subsequent general election. If McBrearty polls especially well, his transfers will have a significant bearing on whether O’Neill or Doherty wins this seat.
Female candidates have proven to be significantly more successful in by-election contests than another other electoral contests (excluding presidential elections!) over the 1990s and 2000s with seven of the nineteen by-elections contested over the past twenty years being won by female candidates, amounting to a success rate of 36.8%. No female candidate has been selected so far to contest this constituency however.