Paul Donnelly has been contesting elections at the local and Dail level for Sinn Fein since 1999. In the locals, he was unsuccessful until being co-opted in Mulhuddart in 2008. He held that seat successfully twice since, topping the poll in 2014, before boundary changes put him in Ongar last year, with another poll-topping performance, a rare occurrence for Sinn Fein at the time. In the nationals, Donnelly has stood five times since 1998, with no success, albeit his vote share has increased in every vote and by-election: he actually topped the poll in the 2016 vote to replace Patrick Nulty, only to be overtaken by Ruth Coppinger on transfers.
When you get inevitably bored of the Fine Gael/Fianna Fail dominance of the narrative, thoughts will naturally fall on Sinn Fein. The usual questions are being asked: has the party reached a plateau of seats they can realistically attain? Will the poll numbers dip on the actual day of the election, as they tend to? Will they hold on to those marginal seats, like Maurice Quinlivan’s in Limerick City? How will they deal with the tidal wave of negativity thrown at them, by the larger parties?
The pattern is not hard to see, is it? Every election campaign it seems that the narrative surrounding Sinn Fein is one of negativity, and not nearly enough is talked about in terms of potential. Because the potential for a real earthquake is there, if some of the polling numbers so far in the campaign hold-up. And Paul Donnelly is one of the candidates who stands to benefit.
I’ll be honest and say I am not terribly familiar with Donnelly, having never lived here during a general election and with the man based in Mulhuddart or Ongar for the locals. What I have seen from his election literature, online presence and activities on the campaign trial is a man who seems driven and conscientious, being involved in numerous local entities ranging from anti-drug task forces in Blanchardstown to campaigns to defend Connolly Hospital from cuts or closure.
He’s been active on locals issues over the past few years while also commenting – or being allowed to comment – on larger issues by the party, who perhaps might have an inkling that he could be a useful spokesperson. And while he has obviously been a member of the party for a long time, he appears to carry none of the negatives one associates with the older wing. You can easily imagine Donnelly as a future Sinn Fein Minister, part of that new wave exemplified by Pearse Doherty and others. In that way, a certain lack of notoriety is, in this case, no bad thing. After all, the Sinn Fein councilors with national profiles tend to be the ones accused of internal bullying or the ones making outlandishly racist and sexist comments on podcasts. Donnelly does not fit that mold, and that helps him.
But can Donnelly actually be elected?. Sinn Fein have been knocking on the door here for a while now, and 2020 may well be the breakthrough year. Notwithstanding the mediocre showing in the locals in 2019, the party have done a good job at slowly raising the profile and chances of Donnelly, who was oh so close in 2014, and nipping at the heels of Joan Burton in 2016. The question is whether the appetite for Sinn Fein has died down in the constituency, as evidenced by votes last year, or if that downturn was just an aberration.
If the polls are to be believed, then it really should be a case of the latter, and Donnelly stands to gain. Even adding another 500-750 first preferences to the number he got for his last performance would probably be enough to elevate him, with Coppinger or Burton to be the ones to lose out. Then again he might see his efforts to do this crippled by a Green tsunami, if Roderic O’Gorman does well, and that could prove ruinous.
It’s hard to say. In my predictions at the start of the campaign I stated my belief that O’Gorman and Burton would be the two out of them, Coppinger and Donnelly to win out, but I admit that I have seen my mind changing a bit over the last couple of weeks. Sinn Fein have managed to position themselves effectively as the first stop for those getting tired of the Fine Gael/Fianna Fail dominance of the Dail and the airwaves, Labour aren’t seeing a bounce and the Greens momentum has stalled a bit. There is still Coppinger, who I think has been working hard in the constituency, but it seems more likely than ever that Donnelly will make good of 22 years of trying, and I have come round on the idea that he may grab the third or fourth seat.
Victory for Donnelly is a seat, pure and simple, given his efforts thus far and how close he has been in the last two constituency votes. Defeat is to be stuck once more in 5th place or, on a really bad day, 6th or 7th, which would surely be evidence that Sinn Fein’s appeal in Dublin West is on a substantial wane. At the present time, I just don’t see that happening. I think one of those four seats is currently Donnelly’s to lose.