Inside The Finn Valley Centre for the Donegal South West by-election…
By Anita Guidera, NW correspondent, Irish Independent
IT took just 15 minutes for the worst nightmares of Fianna Fail to be confirmed.
From the very earliest boxes opened, it was obvious that the party’s vote in one of its safest constituencies in the country had collapsed.
In a single box in Mountcharles, about eight kilometres from Tanaiste Mary Coughlan’s base in Frosses , the Fianna Fail candidate Brian O Domhnaill came out in third place with 25 votes.
He trailed behind poll topper, Pearse Doherty (SF) with 36 votes and Barry O’Neill(FG) with 32 votes and only barely managed to beat the independent candidate, Thomas Pringle on 20 votes.
Notwithstanding the geographical element that comes into play in by-elections, this was a devastating result for the ruling party on the doorstep of its second-in- command.
With mobile phones glued to their ears, worried party workers conveyed the news to their bosses from a thronged count centre.
For this was no ordinary by-election. A record 120 plus media outlets and 55 television vans had applied for passes to attend the event which being widely seen as a referendum on the government.
If that is what it was, the electorate of Donegal SW, long bewitched by Fianna Fail, was finally awakening from its spell.
Conceding early defeat, loyal foot soldier David Alcorn, acknowledged that they had fought an uphill battle.
“Everything came against us. Our candidate was up against a gale force storm but we still expect a substantial vote,” said the valiant county councillor and right-hand man of MEP Pat the Cope Gallagher, whose departure to Europe created the vacancy in the constituency.
And if everything conspired against Fianna Fail, Pearse Doherty’s star was in the ascendant.
But they were not counting any chickens, just yet. Sinn Fein has a poor record in by-elections, last winning one in Sligo in 1925.
As he quietly munched on scone and jam before noon on Friday, vice president Pat Doherty, said it was a huge ask for the party but admitted he was feeling quietly confident.
He put Sinn Fein’s impending success down to the solid hard work being done on the ground, parish by parish, but also to Pearse’s own “personality and genius”.
Add to this, political tenacity and modesty and a picture emerges of a dream candidate, whose High Court challenge of the government, brought about the by-election in the first place.
A miffed Fine Gael put the Sinn Fein victory down to the electorate rewarding Doherty for the legal challenge, thus dismissing it as a one-off aberration but is it that clearcut? We haven’t long to wait to find out.
As snow began to fall and the final result was announced, the Sinn Fein group that swarmed around a beaming Doherty burst into a spontaneous rendition of the traditional ‘Oro Se do Bheatha Bhaile’, penned by nationalist hero, Padraig Pearse.
Notably, the celebrations lacked the oft-times intimidating triumphalism of other Sinn Fein election successes.
Here was a committed, earnest, young politician, who deeply believed in an alternative way forward for this struggling nation, being acknowledged by a disenchanted electorate.
The people had spoken.