By Jim Gibney (for Irish News)
The political earthquake that was the awesome election victory announced last Friday of Sinn Fein’s Pearse Doherty began a few days earlier on the islands dotted around the coast of Donegal: Inis Bofin, Inishfree, Gala, Arranmore and Tory. There the small electorate of a few hundred people cast their votes, starting the tremors which led to the earthquake sweeping through the constituency of Donegal South West over a 15-hour period beginning last Thursday at 7am when the polls opened and continues to send political aftershocks deep inside the south’s political establishment.
It is too early to estimate the size of the earthquake on the political Richter scale but suffice to say in its wake it has upended a political system that is now sitting on the edge of the precipice and could topple any minute.
It is not just the election of Pearse Doherty - he is after all only one extra TD to join Sinn Fein’s other four in Dail Eireann - it is the scale of the victory for Sinn Fein and the defeat for Fianna Fail (FF) and Fine Gael (FG) and, to a lesser but nonetheless significant extent, the defeat of the Labour Party candidate.
Pearse Doherty polled 16,897 first and second-preference votes, twice as many as the FF candidate and easily more than the combined votes of FG and FF. And also not without significance is the trumping of FF and FG by the combined vote of the left opposition, Sinn Fein, Labour and the independent candidate.
Despite their claims to the contrary, Taoiseach Brian Cowen and his government and the Fianna Fail party are agonising over the implications of Pearse Doherty’s election. They may claim (and with some justification) that it is unwise to use a by-election result as a guide to the outcome of a general election but they will be extremely worried that if they assess the result wrongly then Fianna Fail could be decimated at the polls.
In order to prevent this Fianna Fail may have to replace Cowen as its leader to inject some enthusiasm into a demoralised party. The leader of Fine Gael,Enda Kenny, will be every bit as worried about the by-election result as Cowen. Given the universal unpopularity of Fianna Fail, Kenny’s candidate should have done much better. Instead, he was marginally ahead ofthe Fianna Fail candidate. Kenny will know that his party’s best efforts and more importantly his economic policies were roundly rejected by an electorate highly tuned in and capable of judging that there is no difference to what Fianna Fail and Fine Gael are offering.
Although the Labour Party’s candidate and its leader Eamon Gilmore can claim with some merit that the party did well, increasing its vote from a low base to 10 per cent, it too must beconcerned with theresult. Gilmore’s profile in the media is on a par with that of the taoiseach and he, not Enda Kenny, seems to be the leader of the opposition and government-in-wailing. But the Labour Party is in danger of getting carried away with the opinion polls giving it a high rating. More importantly Gilmore’s eagerness to be in government has led to him donning some of Fine Gael’s clothing. His comments last week that he would not change any decisions made by the outgoing government will have hurt his party’s prospects at the polls in a general election.
The one certainly to be taken from Pearse Doherty’s election result is that the electorate want root-and-branch change.
And that is precisely what Sinn Fein offered the electorate in Donegal.
And it is this message - an alternative to what the other parties are offering - which might just tap into the fury of the people of the south. The tens of thousands of people who attended last Saturday’s trades’ union rally in Dublin are the tip ofthe iceberg of that fury. That fury will not immediately force the government or an incoming government to back away from punitive economic policies. It might well require a series of one and several days of general strikes plus poll defeats before we see the back of Fianna Fail.
They are, after all, fighting for their 80-year-old survival.