Northern Ireland

By-election could seal government's fate

Sinn Fein Senator Pearse Doherty
Image caption Sinn Fein Senator Pearse Doherty's party forced the by-election

Voters in Donegal South West go to the polls in a by-election later this month that could determine the future of the deeply unpopular Fianna Fail-Green coalition government.

The next month will be of crucial importance to both the government and the country.

There is a growing sense of inevitability in Dublin these days as politicians come to terms with the almost certainty of a lost economic decade.

On 25 November the people of Donegal South West, amidst the doom and gloom, will give their verdict on Brian Cowen's government less than a fortnight before the expected draconian budget on 7 December.

The by-election was caused when Fianna Fail's Pat "The Cope" Gallagher was elected an MEP 18 months ago.

It took a court action by Sinn Fein candidate, Senator Pearse Doherty, to force a contest.

The government with its dwindling majority - now down to two- would have preferred to have delayed an election until next year, especially as several coalition back-benchers and independent TDs have threatened to vote against the budget if old age pensions are cut and if there's a threat to their local hospitals.

More important

With both the EU Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, Olli Rehn, and the international markets keeping a wary eye on the Republic's attempts to avoid a Greek-style bail-out the government needs every last vote it can get to pass its measures in the Dail.

So, the Donegal South West by-election has taken on more than usual importance.

The largely-rural constituency, with its sweeping Atlantic coastline and fishing ports, heather-covered mountains and pockets of Irish-speaking gaeltachts, is normally fertile ground for Fianna Fail.

The party usually takes two out of the three seats in a general election.

But these are not normal times and the Fianna Fail candidate, Senator Brian O Domhnaill, is up against it.

He has to defend what many see as a discredited government that is largely responsible for the mess the country is in.

Harassment

It suits him to concentrate on local issues as he goes from door to door followed by a posse of reporters.

Senator O Domhnaill is also up against Fine Gael's Barry O'Neill and Labour's Frank McBrearty, whose family was awarded nearly 2.5m euro for the Garda harassment they received after the death of a Donegal businessman.

Fine Gael, which already has a seat in the constituency, is hoping it can win while Labour is keen to show that it can put up a good show in areas where it has not performed well in the past.

Thomas Pringle, a former member of Sinn Fein, is standing as an independent but is regarded as a rank outsider.

But most experts believe that ultimately it will come down to a face-off between Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein.

Pearse Doherty was disappointed not to take a seat in the 2007 general election and has been in campaign mode for the last 18 months highlighting what he sees as neglect by the government.

He's the favourite to win but will have to attract more transfers than his party normally does if he is to succeed.

The accepted wisdom is that the seat is Sinn Fein's to lose and Fianna Fail's to win.

But with a worsening economic situation and a government with a precarious majority, it seems increasingly likely that a general election will be called early next year.

The voters in Donegal South West could well be heading to the polls twice in a matter of months - such is the sense of inevitability amidst the apparently never-ending doom and gloom.