Northern Ireland

Cowen must be aware of the Donegal catch

Brian Cowen
Image caption Brian Cowen is coming under increasing pressure

Amidst the political turmoil in the Irish Republic voters in South West Donegal have a decision to make this week. Who should be their new TD? BBC NI Political Reporter Stephen Walker has been on the campaign trail in Donegal.

As I walked in the cold Atlantic wind through the streets of Killybegs the economic problems became all too apparent. The streets were deserted.

It was hard to find a voter to ask who their next TD should be. Not only were the streets empty but many of the shops were boarded up.

The picturesque fishing port has seen better days. The numerous vacant premises starkly illustrated how the recession has taken hold in this corner of Donegal.

Visitors and day trippers have noticed the difference in recent years.

Cathal Boyle is a member of the Killybegs Fishermen's Organisation and says the town badly needs investment.

Fearful

He says "people who have not been here for five years cannot believe how different the town is".

He says there is a real worry of where and when new jobs are going to come from. He is not alone in being fearful.

Understandably the economy is the number one issue on the doorsteps across Donegal South West.

It is a large rural constituency that takes in fishing ports like Killybegs along the Atlantic coast and includes towns such as Ballyshannon,Lifford, Ballybofey and Donegal.

Unemployment is at 20% and many voters may be tempted to use the by-election as a referendum on Brian Cowen's economic stewardship.

Michael Daly, who edits the Donegal Democrat, says the poll has taken on huge significance in recent weeks.

Outside his offices in Donegal town centre, he explained there were "two elections going on - a by-election and a judgement on the country".

He added that there are actually "seven candidates running in this election, six are declared, the other is the Taoiseach Brian Cowen".

Fianna Fail traditionally takes two out of the three seats in the general election and back in 2007 took 50% of the first preference votes.

Those facts put pressure on the Fianna Fail candidate Brian O'Domhnaill who insists his party can retain the seat.

He told BBC News Online the decision taken by the electorate in Donegal will not determine a new government, but it "will determine who is elected to fight and to represent the people of Donegal in a positive and engaging manner".

If Fianna Fail do not hold this seat it will increase the pressure on the Irish prime minister to resign and will be seen as another indicator that the electorate have lost trust in his premiership.

Brian Cowen's party face strong opposition in the constituency from Sinn Fein's Pearse Doherty.

Back in 2007 he came close to winning a seat and recently he took court action against the government to force the by-election.

He has been buoyed by a recent opinion poll which put him ahead of other candidates, but he maintains it is a "big ask" to win a seat in an area dominated by Fianna Fail.

Image caption Boats in the harbour at Killybegs. Pic by Shane McCaul.

He insists that, "this government is hanging by a thread and the wheels are coming off the government wagon day by day".

Those who wish to vote against the government have other choices.

Barry O'Neill, an RTE Producer, is flying the flag for Fine Gael which already has a seat in the constituency.

Fine Gael see themselves as a government-in-waiting and believe that they are a better alternative to the Fianna Fail/ Green Party coalition.

In the harbour at Killybegs, Barry O'Neill told me "what we need to see is a change of government and clean the boards like the UK".

Fine Gael faces competition from the Labour Party who are hoping to perform well in an area where they normally struggle.

The party has selected Frank McBrearty, a Raphoe businessman who is a well known name in the constituency.

His family were awarded compensation after Garda harassment. He remains optimistic that Labour are capable of causing a political upset.

'Neglected'

Sitting in his much travelled mobile campaign van parked up in Killybegs he was critical of previous political representatives.

He said "the people of Donegal have been neglected and have been taken for granted by politicians".

Mr McBrearty hopes anti-government feelings will translate into votes.

He is just one of five candidates vying to be the next TD.

Thomas Pringle, a former Sinn Fein Councillor, is running as an Independent, although he is regarded as an outsider.

The machinations in Dublin, the arrival of the International Monetary Fund, the pending general election and the news that the Greens are pulling out of the coalition will all have a bearing on who will be the new TD.

Whoever gets elected will find themselves at the centre of a story that has attracted international media attention.

The successful candidate will have little time to get used to a new life in Leinster House.

Very soon they will be back doing something very familiar, getting ready for another election.