Donegal-General Election just months away

Donegal-How will the election go?

By John O’Hara

With just months now until the announcement of the next General Election, the time has come to focus on what this means for the people of Donegal, who will be faced with the prospect of losing a TD, with the county reverting to a five seater single constituency.

With the general apathy towards politics in the county becoming more and more prevalent, many will consider this to be a positive change in the landscape of the county’s political battles. For the main parties, however, they are entering into the unknown, with the county’s vast geographical spread a daunting task for any director of elections.

At the minute, there are six TDs in Leinster House; Pearse Doherty of Sinn Fein, Dinny McGinley of Fine Gael and Independent, Thomas Pringle who represent Donegal South-West. At the other end of the county is Joe McHugh of Fine Gael, Charlie McConalogue of Fianna Fail and Padraig MacLaochlainn of Sinn Fein.

The change to a five seater will directly impact the sitting deputies, with only five seats now remaining and a vast change in the attitudes of the electorate since 2011. Five years ago, the Fianna Fail brand was absolutely toxic in the country, but the Donegal soldiers of destiny were able to return first time candidate Charlie McConalogue, who has been a vocal member of the opposition as spokesperson on education. His biggest problem this time around is his geographical position and the distance between Inishowen and the rest of the county. He is relying on the party not running a candidate in the Letterkenny area, while members there will be keen for representation. Another threat is the return of Pat ‘The Cope’ Gallagher, who will be popular among the electorate, but he should be far enough from McConalogue to ensure a good voting strategy.

From a party perspective, the prospect of losing a young, enthusiastic TD is a daunting one, especially if it results in the re-election of one of the old timers, who has the baggage, that the party are trying to discard. It is clear that they have the votes to return one candidate and running two high profile names is risky in that they could lose their seat.

Sinn Fein seem to have no such worries. Their party members seem to be on stable ground, with both members positioned perfectly for a two candidate strategy. Rumours of trying to run a third candidate seem to have some merit, but party strategists will know that Sinn Fein’s cross party transfer rates have always been an issue and they may well play safe and settle for two of the five seats.

Fine Gael’s election team will be having sleepless nights, as they contemplate the electorate’s backlash against the Government and the ever continuing debacle that is Irish Water. If ever there was a single issue that showed the ineptitude of Public administration, this is it. With serious questions still unanswered over the sitserv deals and the initial set up of Irish Water, Government TDs must be wondering where this is all going to end. It is likely that a lot of candidates will run on an anti-Irish Water platform and this will bring back memories in Donegal of Thomas Gildea’s famous 1997 election on the back of the anti-MMDS campaign.

For Joe McHugh and Dinny McGinley, this election represents the biggest challenge of their careers. Dinny, who had intended to stand down, says that he will run, which leaves Fine Gael strategists scratching their heads, trying to formulate a plan to return two TDs when the form book says there’s only room for one.

The Government’s offensive has begun in earnest, with Joe McHugh announcing that the long awaited upgrade of Cockhill Bridge has been given the go ahead, while he has also signalled the green light for a new state of the art Primary school for the Educate Together School in Letterkenny, which will be the biggest primary school in Donegal. These projects represent millions in investment for the county, but many have been critical of the announcements, claiming they are merely stunts in order to garner support before the next election. That may well be, but many will be appreciative of this news and this is a huge bonus for the Minister for the Gaelteacht. One of his biggest challenges before the next election is getting a consensus on the stalled upgrade of the A5 from Derry to Aughnacloy, which would be a huge asset for Donegal in terms of attracting Foreign Direct Investment, with the infrastructural upgrade.

McHugh will be weary of his running mate, who has always proven popular with the electorate and with the knowledge that only one Fine Gael candidate can be elected, Fine Gael could have difficulty running a cohesive campaign.

Another major plus for McHugh is the lack of candidates in the Letterkenny/Milford area, which is his base. Fianna Fail, despite pressure to run a candidate in the area may have to resist in order to help Charlie McConalogue get elected. Independent councillor, John O’Donnell has made suggestions that he may run, but it is not clear how much of an impact he would have in a general election.

The other sitting TD is Thomas Pringle, who has enjoyed a lot of national coverage during his term in office, as part of a technical group, with other independent TDs. Pringle, formerly of Sinn Fein is a very popular TD, who is vocal in his opposition of Government policy, especially in the area of Irish Water.

Pringle’s biggest threat is the re-drawing of the boundaries, which sees him losing some of his electorate in the south-west of the county, while he also has to contend with making a name for himself in the North-East, where he has no supporter base. As an Independent, he may struggle to pick up votes outside his catchment area, but he will be hoping his profile over the past five years has grown enough to sway voters to put him back in Leinster House.

Peter Casey of Dragon’s Den fame, has also thrown his hat into the ring for this constituency as an Independent. Despite his high profile, he is relatively unknown in terms of his political beliefs and his business background may be suited to politics, but may not be suitable for winning elections.

At the minute, the picture is not clear, as we don’t know who will be running, but six to seven months out, taking into account the above, it looks like two seats for Sinn Fein, one each for Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, leaving room for one Independent to make it to the hallowed halls of Leinster House. As the election gets closer, the picture will become clearer and a more in-depth analysis will be offered here on The Tirconaill View.

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