Fianna Fail puts the party first in poll fight
Key Budget minister O Cuiv to manage election campaign
SOCIAL Protection Minister Eamon O Cuiv was last night appointed Fianna Fail's campaign manager in the upcoming by-election, even though he is due to oversee a raft of welfare cuts in next month's Budget.
The appointment of a key Budget minister to the role is set to provoke accusations that Fianna Fail is putting the interests of the party ahead of the needs of the country.
Mr O Cuiv will have to dedicate large amounts of time to the Donegal South West by-election in the coming weeks amid growing worry among welfare recipients over planned cuts to their income.
The social welfare bill could be slashed by up to €1bn in the Budget on December 7, with severe cuts predicted to the old age pension, child benefit, unemployment benefit and carers' allowance.
Pension cuts are fast becoming the key breaking point for FF backbenchers, and the Green Party last night insisted pensions could not be cut.
But while the Government's four-year budgetary plan is being finalised, the crucial by-election campaign in Donegal will also be run.
Following yesterday's cabinet meeting on the four-year plan, and ahead of today's visit by European Commissioner Olli Rehn, Taoiseach Brian Cowen, Tanaiste Mary Coughlan and Mr O Cuiv travelled to Donegal for the Fianna Fail meeting to select the candidate.
The appointment of Mr O Cuiv as director of elections is a sign the party intends to make every effort to defend the seat vacated by Pat 'the Cope' Gallagher on his election to the European Parliament.
From his seven years as Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs Minister from 2002 to 2009, Mr O Cuiv has an acute knowledge of the constituency.
Mr Gallagher is understood to have been the party's first choice as director of elections, but party sources said he turned down the job due to his European "responsibilities".
Junior minister Dara Calleary was appointed as Mr O Cuiv's assistant, to share the workload.
Cabinet ministers are not always put in charge of by-election campaigns. For example, junior minister Conor Lenihan was Fianna Fail director of elections in last year's Dublin South by-election, which was won by former Fine Gael TD George Lee.
But Mr O Cuiv last night chaired the Fianna Fail selection convention where Senator Brian O Domhnaill was chosen uncontested as the candidate.
Urging members to canvass night and day for Mr O Domhnaill, Mr O Cuiv said the party was "facing a tough campaign" and it was time Fianna Fail showed they were not on the way out.
"There are those who want to get rid of the Catholic Church, the GAA and Fianna Fail. I won't speak about the other two but they won't get rid of Fianna Fail. We want to come back here to see the bonfires lighting on the hills of Donegal," he said.
In a rainy and windswept Glenties, a defiant Fianna Fail hierarchy showed a united front when rank and file got behind the young senator from the north Donegal coast to contest the by-election.
Upwards of 500 people packed the hall to deliver a resounding cheer when Mr O Domhnaill, a 33-year-old champion speed walker, was selected.
In a rousing victory speech, he said he believed it was possible for Fianna Fail to win the seat. "I am delighted to be selected to represent Fianna Fail going forward into a by-election which we can win.
"It moves my heart that there is no vote here tonight and this party is united.
"I am deeply honoured to be custodian for the Fianna Fail by-election in these difficult times and by God we are going to do it," said the Falcarragh-born senator.
Mr Cowen also said the party was going to win the seat.
"You will listen to many defeatist voices in the coming weeks, you will listen to many people who seek to denigrate where we are at," Mr Cowen said.
"You will listen to many people who recently converted to the democratic process, but the one thing you will not hear from Fianna Fail is meeting that argument in those terms. We will meet that argument on the basis of what we do, what we have done and what we intend to do for this country.
"We have a better case to put in the context of the crisis this country is facing rather than the opportunism of the opposition which is going to catch them out sooner rather than later, " he said.
But even as Mr Cowen and Ms Coughlan were expressing confidence that Fianna Fail could retain the seat, Conor Lenihan said the party's chances of winning the by-election seat were slim -- and he even suggested there may be a general election in the spring.
"Everything is there to play for but I would accept from the outset that it is very unlikely that a Government candidate will win," he said.
Also at the weekend, Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny told the people of Donegal South West they would be giving their verdict on a national question.