Kings of the wild frontier

The Irish electoral system, with the single transferable vote in multi-seat constituencies, is not only fiendishly complicated but also, by allowing TDs to be elected by tiny margins, reinforces parish pump politics and intra-party rivalries. I think it was Churchill who came up with the old crack about the opposition being in front of you, but the enemy on your own benches. Any observer of the Irish scene can tell you that Churchill didn’t know the half of it.

We are currently in a pre-election period, where candidate selection and jostling for position are the order of the day. This is an opportunity to look at the game within the game – often more interesting than the game itself. And it’s no surprise that the most fun is to be had watching Fianna Fáil, not only the biggest party in the state but also possessing a capacity for fratricidal feuds that wouldn’t disgrace The Sopranos. FF HQ is, as usual at this point, greatly exercised by constituency organisations that aren’t on message for the centralised and professional campaign Bertie Ahern wants to run. The most intransigent of these constituencies are on the West Coast, Ireland’s equivalent of the tribal areas in Pakistan’s North West Frontier, where well-entrenched local warlords scoff at the emissaries from Dublin trying to exercise some discipline over them.

Wildest of these fiefdoms is Donegal North East, where Niall Blaney’s Provisional Fianna Fáil wound up its 36 years of independent existence this summer in favour of an Historic Merger with the parent party. This left FF with three seats out of three in the constituency, Blaney joining colourful former minister Dr Jim McDaid and HQ favourite Cecilia Keaveney. At the time, Bertie made a big deal of this, and Dublin-based commentators took the Blaney move to be another of Bertie’s famously Machiavellian strokes.

Now bear in mind that the DNE constituency consists of three distinct areas, each of which traditionally provides a TD: Letterkenny town (McDaid), the Inishowen peninsula (Keaveney) and Milford (Blaney). In Donegal, local ties can be just as powerful as party allegiances. So welcoming the Blaneyites back into the fold would seem, on the face of it, to have covered all the bases. But, as Bertie should know, sometimes you can be too clever for your own good.

This is where it starts to get interesting. Although Blaney still has a powerful organisation, it is in long-term decline and he figured the best way to ensure his re-election was to be an official Fianna Fáil candidate. Apparently he was given to understand that, as McDaid had signalled his willingness to retire, there would be a two-person FF ticket – that is, Keaveney and Blaney.

At the same time, McDaid was apparently under the impression that he would be succeeded on the FF ticket by another Letterkenny candidate. At least, that’s what Letterkenny FFers thought – they were certain they would have a candidacy, whether or not that was McDaid. The upshot was that, after the Historic Merger, McDaid announced that he was reconsidering his retirement plans. He has also stubbornly resisted all blandishments to stand down. It’s hard to see what, short of a plum European sinecure, could shift him.

Now FF are in the electorally suicidal position of having three candidates in a three-seat constituency. Party HQ would dearly love to have a two-person ticket, preferably by imposing it centrally and arranging for either McDaid or Blaney to be quietly assassinated. This would avoid the inconvenience of a selection convention, which would inevitably result in open warfare between Letterkenny members and Blaneyites. However, the one thing every FF member in rural Ireland agrees on is their hatred of centrally imposed tickets, and cancelling the convention may be more trouble than it is worth. Moreover, there would be nothing to stop the shaftee – possibly McDaid but more likely Blaney – walking out of the party and going on a solo run.

Now put this in the context of the government being generally unpopular in Donegal, and the opposition parties making a strong showing. Fine Gael’s Senator Joe McHugh is odds on to take a seat; Sinn Féin Nua’s Cllr Pádraig Mac Lochlainn is also coming up on the rails, and is in a good position to appeal to disaffected Blaneyites. The result of this is that the three big FF honchos in the constituency are in a no-holds-barred scrap for two seats at most, and possibly one – and it isn’t likely, but nor is it beyond the realms of possibility that an independent candidacy from McDaid could leave the dominant party in the state with no seats at all in a traditional stronghold.

It isn’t at all clear at this stage how this situation will pan out. But Donegal will certainly be providing Bertie with some headaches in the months ahead, not to say rare entertainment for the bloody political infighting that only rural Ireland can provide. When you hear the banjo music, run like hell.

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