By John O'Doherty
Tuesday, November 23, 2010; 10:17 PM
DONEGAL, IRELAND - In the quiet towns of south Donegal, Irish voters in Thursday's by-election are flirting with Sinn Fein, a party that has not held a seat in the county for at least half a century.
The nationalist group's newfound popularity is a measure of just how far from public favor the ruling Fianna Fail party, led by Prime Minister Brian Cowen, has fallen.
Cowen's government, which is struggling to retain support for a budget vote next month, could face a symbolic and historic defeat just days after formally requesting a multibillion-euro rescue package from the European Union and International Monetary Fund.
Passage of the budget is a condition of the E.U. and IMF support. Failure to pass it would deepen Ireland's financial crisis and threaten the stability of the wider 16-country euro zone.
The election is taking place only because Sinn Fein launched a successful court challenge to force the hand of Fianna Fail, which had refused to set a date for this and two other long-delayed by-elections for fear of losing its slender parliamentary majority.
Cowen's announcement on Monday that he intends to call a general election early next year means that, no matter who wins the Donegal by-election, he will barely have time to unpack his boxes in Dublin before hitting the campaign trail again.
"They're about to introduce a serious package of cuts on the Irish people and then run," said Pearse Doherty, the Sinn Fein candidate. "If I am elected, I have committed myself to vote against the budget."
It has been at least 50 years since either of Donegal's two constituencies returned a Sinn Fein deputy to Ireland's Parliament. Donegal voters have instead tended to shift their support between Ireland's two main parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.
But not this year. Recent polling by RedC for Paddy Power bookmakers indicates Doherty is leading the race.
"I was in London for 18 years working and I came home to the myth that was the Celtic tiger in 2000," said Liam Duffy, 48, a builder, referring to the Irish economy's glory years. "I voted for Fianna Fail in the past simply because I was getting favors done on planning. . . . But no more."
He is now shifting his allegiance to Sinn Fein.
But Ireland's complicated system of proportional representation, which allows voters to indicate their second, third and fourth choices, means so-called "transfer votes" could upset the front-runner and help Brian O Domhnaill, the Fianna Fail candidate running second in the polls, to snatch victory.
After a disastrous two years for the Irish economy that culminated in a humiliating week for the government as it was forced to request an international bailout, it might seem strange that anyone should seek to reward the country's ruling party. But in Donegal, as elsewhere across the Republic of Ireland, party affiliation and support is often a family affair, passed from one generation to the next.
"I am very disappointed, but I'll still vote for Fianna Fail out of a sense of loyalty," said Sadie Melly, 80. "There's a lot of loyalty to them, especially with the older generation. I think they've learnt their lesson and they've tightened up."
Melly said she is still frightened of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the now-dormant Irish Republican Army. She lived in Strabane, across the border in Northern Ireland, during the worst years of Catholic-Protestant conflict in the 1970s and 1980s, and sent her children to schools in Donegal out of fear for their safety. She has since settled there.
But not everyone in the town is afraid of Sinn Fein. Many, particularly younger, voters are now considering voting for the party.
"I'll vote for Sinn Fein," said Ed Wiazewicz, 45, a software engineer who moved to Donegal from Britain 13 years ago. "They stood up for democracy, which I never thought I'd say about Sinn Fein."
- Financial Times