Irish general election: a view from Donegal

By Gareth Gordon
BBC NI political correspondent

Image caption,
Mary Coughlan on stage for the celebrations which marked her appointment as Tanaiste

When Mary Coughlan was appointed Irish deputy prime minister or tanaiste, her supporters in south west Donegal celebrated like they'd just won the All Ireland Championship.

Now nearly three years later, there are some who believe the Fianna Fail politician may not even retain her seat in next week's general election.

Disillusion with the political system - and in particular her party - is high in the constituency.

Just like the bonfires which greeted the county's first ever Tanaiste, the dreams of so many have gone up in smoke.

"You would feel with somebody who's the second-in-command like they would have a great shout and all the rest of it," said a man in the Diamond in the centre of Donegal Town where they held the party of all parties to mark Mary Coughlan's elevation to high office.

Another woman chipped in: "You can just look around this Diamond here and its just slowly going."

And who does she blame? "The Fianna Fail government. Absolutely outrageous."

Celtic Tiger

No Donegal politician had ever been appointed to so important a job in Dublin. For a moment, and only a moment, Mary Coughlan and her supporters believed their time had come.

Now on the streets of Donegal Town it appears to have gone. In the Diamond business seems slow - in the shops which are still open that is.

Others lie silent behind shutters and "to let" signs.

Like most of the people you speak to, award-winning butcher Ernan McGettigan said the Celtic Tiger never even came to Donegal.

"I suppose, in a way, the timing of when this actually happened was unfortunate for Mary Coughlan," he said.

"I don't want to get into personalising anything, but the Fianna Fail party, her party, in which she held a very, very senior position has done absolutely nothing for this region. You look around this town you see the devastation; you see businesses closing."

In summer, the nearby town of Ardara might be teeming with visitors, many from Northern Ireland. But on a wet February morning it feels miserable.


The area's biggest employer, Gallagher's bakery, is soon to shed more than 100 jobs which will surely increase the sense of isolation.

Bakery worker Francis Quinn said: "There are a lot of people from Donegal going to Dublin to get jobs making far more money than we would be making here.

They come down on Thursdays and back up again on Sunday evening making big money. It'll never happen here."

Local community activist Stephen McCahill has decided to contest the election as an independent. He's a former member of Fianna Fail and his intervention will not help Mary Coughlan.

Image caption,
Shop owners in south west Donegal spell out their feelings

"Relating this to a city like Belfast or Dublin - it's like the loss of 5,000 jobs. It's horrendous," he said.

"The age profile in the bakery is a worry. You have a lot of young men and young women married with a couple of kids with a big mortgage and what happens to them?

"They can't actually get up and go because nobody's going to buy their house, they're tied into a mortgage. Its a very frightening time."

There's always the fishing in nearby Killybegs except that here too the politicians are blamed for not protecting the fleet.

John Craig, who runs the Harbour Store, said :"We've had very, very poor representation. (We have) the second most powerful politician in the country but it hasn't transferred to jobs or to industry here.

Pincer movement

"We lost most of our quotas and every year we're being hammered by new restrictions which basically have decimated the white fish fleet."

Michael Daly, editor-in-chief of the Donegal Democrat, said Mary Coughlan "got one of the best jobs in the country at the worst possible time."

"We changed from a situation where people in her Department of Enterprise were looking for bottles of champagne and silver shovels to open new buildings, to literally closing buildings left, right and centre.

"The difficulty now for Mary Coughlan - and I still think she will retain her seat - is that if I was her I would be concerned about a pincer movement of Independents who may take enough votes off her."

The number of people without a job in county Donegal has grown from 9,000 to 22,000 in just four years.

That people are even talking about the possibility of Donegal's political golden girl joining them is as good a metaphor as any for how the Republic's world has changed in such a short time.