Sinn Fein’s Pearse Doherty has weakened the Fianna Fail/Green Party coalition’s slender hold on power with a stunning and historic election victory in Donegal.
On the first count, Senator Doherty secured an incredible 40% of the first preference vote in the former Fianna Fail bastion of Donegal South-West.
It is the first by-election victory for a Sinn Fein party since 1917, when Eamon de Valera won a seat in the Westminster parliament for East Clare.
The Sinn Fein success has ended the Dublin government’s majority, with the balance of power currently now fully held by two independents who normally support the Fianna Fail/Green Party coalition.
The election result comes as backbenchers and independents are threatening to vote against the coalition’s hated austerity plan next month.
Donegal South West is a rural area where people believe they largely missed out on many of the benefits of the Celtic Tiger era. Communities have been hit recently by high unemployment and emigration.
Voters went to the polls yesterday, just 24 hours after Taoiseach Brian Cowen unveiled his four-year plan for fifteen billion euro in cuts and taxes.
Meanwhile, European officials and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are dictating terms to the ailing government over an additional 85 billion euro bailout.
With Donegal one of Fianna Fail’s heartlands, observers were reluctant to rule out a win by the party, despite polls showing an upset was on the cards.
The Fianna Fail candidate is Brian O Domhnaill and while regarded as a good prospect for the party under normal circumstances, he has been battling against the climate of anger against the Government.
Anecdotal evidence yesterday suggested some party supporters may simply have stayed at home and refused to cast a vote in protest at the economic chaos gripping the country.
Fine Gael is represented by Barry O’Neill, while the Labour candidate is Frank McBrearty, who has a high profile given his successful campaign against garda harassment.
Turnout was lower than normal at 57%, reduced by cold weather and the belief that a general election will be called in the Spring.
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, Six-County Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and SF Vice President Mary Lou McDonald were at the count centre. “The people of this state have a very, very bad government,” Mr Adams told reporters.
“It appears the people have responded and they have made a stand alongside Sinn Fein.”
But he said his party would not “cheer its chickens” until the official result came in.
Fianna Fail’s director of elections Eamon O Cuiv this afternoon acknowledged Sinn Fein’s strong performance. Tanaiste Mary Coughlan, who is a TD for the constituency, is also at the count.
O’Cuiv, the Social Protection Minister, said by-election results “do not always reflect national trends” or what will happen at the next General Election. He said people “must not look too deeply into the result”.
Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore said he was “very satisfied” despite his candidate being beaten into fifth place by a former Sinn Fein member, Thomas Pringle, who stood as an independent.
It was also a poor result for Fine Gael, which lost one in five of their support since the 2007 general election.
Doherty (SF) 13719 (39.8%, up 18.6%)
O Domhnaill (FF) 7344 (21.3%, down 29.2%)
O’Neill (FG) 6424 (18.6%, down 4.4%)
Pringle (Ind) 3438 (10.0%)
McBrearty (Lab) 3366 (9.8%, up 7.0%)
Sweeney (Ind) 133 (0.4%)
The final result will be published here when available.