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25 November 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 5:40am

Will today’s by-election bring the Irish government down?

Victory for Sinn Fein could make it impossible for the government to pass its austerity budget.

By George Eaton

The bailout may have granted Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen a stay of execution but today’s by-election could seal his fate. If, as expected, Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty wins in Donegal South West, Cowen’s majority will be cut to just two, making it near-impossible for the government to pass its austerity budget on 7 December. A recent Red C/Paddy Power poll put Sinn Fein on 40 per cent, Fianna Fáil on 19 per cent, Fine Gael on 15 per cent and Labour on 14 per cent.

As things stand, the opposition has 79 TDs (which will become 80 if Sinn Féin wins) and the government has 82. Cowen’s party Fianna Fáil currently has 70 TDs in the Irish Dáil, as well as the support of three more Fianna Fáil members without the whip, six Green TDs and three independents. But two independents, Michael Lowry and Jackie Healy-Rae, have already said that the government cannot count on their support for the budget. Should they abstain, the vote could be tied, should they vote against the budget, it will be lost.

Remarkably, the seat has been left vacant since June 2009, when the sitting Fianna Fáil TD, Pat “The Cope” Gallagher, was elected to the European Parliament. Sinn Féin eventually took legal action at the High Court, which ruled that the 17-month delay was unconstitutional. Expect Fianna Fáil to be punished for this and many other sins when Irish voters head to the polls today.

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