Donegal vote marks end of an era in Ireland's politics

Votes for the Irish by-election are counted in Donegal, 26 November 2010 The Donegal by-election was an electoral humiliation for the ruling Fianna Fail party

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Voters in the coastal county of Donegal have delivered a sea-change in Irish politics. The defeat of Ireland's largest party, Fianna Fail, in one of their heartlands shows the political impact of the country's financial meltdown.

The Irish Republic is in a mess, and the government is getting the blame.

Fianna Fail's 13-year domination of Irish politics seems to be at an end. The chances of them staying in power after next year's election seem remote.

Embarrassing result

In Donegal South West, their vote collapsed, from more than 50% in the 2007 election to just 21%. That is an electoral humiliation.

It is true that in by-elections across the world, governing parties do badly, whether it be in Donegal, Darlington or Detroit. However, by any standards, losing more than half of your vote is an embarrassment.

The only hope for the party is that by the time the general election comes next year, the anger will have died down.

It is likely they will have a new leader by then as Brian Cowen's days seem numbered.

The best he can do now is to ensure that he can stay in office until March, to allow time for the public mood to improve. It would also give his party some breathing space to elect a new leader to fight the next election.

Bad timing

In fairness to Mr Cowen, the timing of the by-election could hardly have been worse, coming just 24 hours after he introduced a four-year package of austerity measures.

His focus will now turn to securing the Irish Republic's international bail-out and stabilising the country's financial position.

His priority in the Irish Parliament will be to try to ensure that the next budget - due on 7 December - is passed.

Protesters calling for an immediate general election, outside the prime minister's office in Dublin, Ireland, 26 November 2010 An election looks likely to be scheduled for early next year but some people are demanding one now

At present, the ruling Fianna Fail-Green Party coalition, has only a two-seat majority in the 166-strong parliament - and that includes a number of independents who currently support the government.

To call it a fragile majority is an under-statement.

On paper, the chances of the budget being passed look slim. However, Mr Cowen's trump card could be "the national interest".

The European Commission has made no secret of the fact that if the Irish Republic wants an 85bn euro bail-out to resolve its debt crisis, it needs to make savings at home - and that means passing a new budget.

Mr Cowen will tell his critics, inside and outside Fianna Fail, that it is not a time to play party politics; it is time to back the budget for the greater good.

Looking for momentum

One party unlikely to accept that argument is Sinn Fein. They are capitalising on the government's unpopularity, and the victory in Donegal South West was their first by-election victory since 1925.

The party believes it is now on a roll. Its leader, Gerry Adams, is hoping to add further momentum by running in the general election, and trying to win a seat in County Louth.

Victory in Donegal raised the number of Sinn Fein seats in the Dail, the Irish parliament, from four to five. The party has a long way to go, given that it is a 166-seat legislature.

Sinn Fein is unlikely to be part of the next Irish government as the other two opposition parties, Fine Gael and Labour, are likely to have enough seats between them to form a right-left coalition.

The best guess for an election date is some time in March. However, it could come sooner if the budget is voted down, or the opposition parties manage to push through a motion of no-confidence.

Sinn Fein candidate Pearce Doherty (centre) celebrates with his wife Roisin, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams (right) and party colleagues at the election count in Donegal, 26 November 2010 It is the first time Sinn Fein has won a by-election in the Irish Republic since 1925

The result of the Donegal by-election completed an awful week for the Irish government, possibly the worst political week in the life of Mr Cowen.

Donegal is Ireland's most northerly county but it has placed itself at the centre of Irish politics with the by-election result.

It is, arguably, the country's most beautiful county with its green hills, long beaches and stunning Atlantic scenery.

It is a fantastic place for a holiday, but next summer Mr Cowen is likely to choose somewhere else.

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