As the outgoing Tanaiste, Mary Coughlan teetered on the brink of political collapse last night, Sinn Fein were celebrating a double success in the respective Donegal constituencies with poll topping performances from Pearse Doherty and Padraig MacLochlainn, writes Paddy Walsh.
After Doherty’s by-election victory in November, confidence was high for a repeat triumph in the South-West - and a first preference vote of 14,262, which saw him home and dry on the first count, surpassed hopes and expectations. His profile has escalated to commanding heights with the party placing him firmly in the limelight on television and radio in recent times.
MacLochlainn, too, engineered his entry into the national parliament with an impressive first preference total of 9,278 within touching distance of the quota of 9,480.
But for Fianna Fail’s prime runner in the South-West constituency there no such guarantee of a clear run with Coughlan’s tally of 4,956 - a dramatic drop from her 2007 first preference total of 10,530 - pushing her to the very edge of the election precipice.
The opinion polls had suggested independent candidate, Thomas Pringle, as a possible surprise in the constituency – the tally figures from yesterday’s count echoing those predictions and placing the Killybegs man in a serious position of threat to Coughlan. He out-polled the Minister with 5,845 first preferences to give himself a real running chance of securing a seat.
Since the by-election that won Doherty a seat for Sinn Fein, the subject of polls and, indeed, polling has hardly been off the agenda. The pressure continued to mount on Fianna Fail and with Brian Cowen abdicating as leader, though holding onto to the reins of Taoiseach, the worst kept secret in Irish politics was finally revealed – the country was heading for a General Election.
Invariably regarded as a traditional stronghold for the main outgoing Government party, there was no more such certainty as the county’s two constituencies prepared for the February 25th poll and yesterday’s count.
For Tanaiste Coughlan, losing a seat would have been unheard of in recent elections but these are no ordinary times for Fianna Fail and tradition has been replaced by criticism of the way the Government has handled – or mishandled the nation’s finances and the general economy – with Deputy Coughlan’s seat a Barnesmore Gap size away from a given.
Political analysts were questioning the wisdom of the party running two candidates but with transfers also critical, the decision to include Senator Brian O Domhnaill on the F.F. ticket may have misfired with the latter taking 4,789 votes in the first count.
Fine Gael had also toyed with the idea of running two candidates in the South-West but opted instead to confine it to veteran campaigner and outgoing T.D. Dinny McGinley. The vote tally indicates a strategy gone right with the former teacher chalking up 8,589 votes, well short of the quota of 10,816 but still set for a return to his Dail seat.
In Donegal North-East, Fianna Fail went for the one candidate strategy, putting County Councillor Charlie McConalogue as its sole runner. But that didn’t win the approval of all party members and supporters and when Letterkenny councillor, Dessie Larkin, was mooted as a possible running mate – and one with serious potential – and then had his name withdrawn from the contest, there was anger in some quarters.
The pressure on the F.F. man gathered particular momentum with the presence of four other Inishowen candidates in search of seats – none less than Sinn Fein’s MacLochlainn who polled as anticipated and showed the party’s growing strength in the county as a whole.
Fine Gael, meanwhile, reversed a dictate from H.Q. to only run one candidate, outgoing T.D Joe McHugh initially nominated to go it alone at the party’s convention in Letterkenny, but subsequently been joined on the ticket by the emerging John Ryan. The latter’s presence or not, was never going to upset the McHugh apple cart and the first preference total of 7,338 put the latter in prime position to regain his seat. Ryan too polled well, winning 4,657 votes, the great majority of these, not surprisingly, secured in his Inishowen domain.
Councillor Jimmy Harte, once a member of the F.G. stable but now running in the colours of Labour, entered the race with high hopes of winning one of the three seats on offer. While his party has never had a traditional candidate in the county, he was nevertheless viewed as a popular candidate and was relying on the support from his home town of Letterkenny to get him across the line. But there was disappointment as a first preference total of 4,090 failed to give him the momentum needed and his hopes of a Dail seat were hanging on possible, but not probable, tranfers
Independent candidate, Dessie Shiels, did take a percentage of votes from him in the Cathedral Town having polled an impressive 1,876 votes in his first venture into the election picture.