Doherty wins out but Fianna Fáil not dead and buried

Sinn Féin's Pearse Doherty secured his seat in Dáil Eireann on Thursday with a comfortable win in the Donegal South West byelection. By Alison Spillane

Doherty's victory is no surprise; an opinion poll conducted by Red C Research last week accurately predicted that the SF Senator would take 40% of first preference votes. He was elected without meeting the quota in the fourth count with substantial transfers from Independent Thomas Pringle.

The surprise in this by-election was Fianna Fáil's Brian O' Domhnaill who won over 20% of the vote with 7,344 first preferences. Previous elections demonstrate that Donegal is a Fianna Fáil heartland and the party won 50% of votes in the 2007 general election. However, it is surprising that in Fianna Fail retains such support in light of the IMF bailout, calls for the resignation of Brian Cowen, and ructions within the party. Moreover, it was reported that large numbers of 'staunch' Fianna Fail voters expressed their dissatisfaction with the government by not voting in the by-election. 

Like the rest of the country, Donegal has been severely impacted by cuts, particularly in its health services. In early November, HSE West drew up a provisional plan to cope with an anticipated €10 million in cuts to mental health funding.The diminution of health services at Letterkenny hospital is also a major issue of contention among the population.

The county is also an unemployment blackspot. With nearly 30% unemployment Donegal is at more than twice the national level.

An article in Saturday's Irish Times argues that the collapse in the Fianna Fail first preference vote from 50 to 21% will "send shudders through that organisation". It is a dramatic drop, but O'Domhnaill still polled more first preferences than Fine Gael's Barry O'Neill (6,424) and Labour's Frank McBrearty (3,366) - the two parties expected to form the next government. 

Indeed, 21% puts Fianna Fail four points ahead of the most recent Red C opinion poll which showed the party to be at 17% nationally. O'Domhnaill's relative success may be down to the perceived qualities versus competing candidates, yet the opinion poll conducted in Donegal South West put him on only 9% for the next general election.

Labour leader Eamon Gilmore described McBrearty's performance as "very encouraging". But considering Labour aims to be the larger party in the next government, having a candidate poll well behind Sinn Fein, Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and an Independent is anything but heartening. Fine Gael too will be disappointed. Barry O'Neill received nearly 19% of first preferences, down four points from the party's 2007 general election result.

As well as the above, the Donegal South West byelection recorded a low turnout – around 56%. This is perhaps because it was overshadowed in recent days by calls for an immediate general election by opposition parties. Moreover, the fact that polling took place midweek may have caused difficulties for students and people working outside of Donegal. Opposition parties criticised the government for choosing a mid-week election.

Following the intervention of Olli Rehn, European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs, who publicly warned against an election, both Fine Gael and Labour have changed their position somewhat and calls for an immediate election have faded.

Sinn Féin has stood firm, tabling a motion of no confidence in Taoiseach Brian Cowen. However, it has insufficient TDs for the motion to be accepted as a subject for debate.

Fianna Fáil will perhaps use the low turnout in Donegal South West as justification for the loss. Minister O'Cuiv attempted to play down the importance of the byelection yesterday afternoon saying: "I do think we have to be careful not to over-exagerrate the by-election results. By-election results do not always reflect either a national trend, nor do they necessarily indicate what would happen in a general election."

Tanaiste Mary Coughlan attributed the decline in party support in Donegal South West to the actions of the Greens earlier this week who, she said, distracted both FF activists and supporters by announcing their intention to withdraw from government.

Clearly, some Fianna Fail politicians seem acutely incognisant of wider public sentiment.