Sinn Fein signals big trouble for Cowen

The woes of the Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen increased yesterday when his Fianna Fail party was trounced by Sinn Fein in a by-election in Co Donegal.

With early ballots counted, the vote for Fianna Fail, the largest party in Dublin's governing coalition, appeared to have slumped from its winning 50 per cent in the last general election, to just 20 per cent; a collapse broadly in line with its position in nationwide opinion polls.

The result will be regarded as confirmation that the government can expect to be swept from office when Mr Cowen calls a general election, as he has promised to do, in the new year. The seats of many present ministers are now thought to be in jeopardy.

The outcome was a signal victory for Sinn Fein, which won 39 per cent of first-preference votes. The party was last night celebrating what it hopes will be the beginning of a revival of its fortunes.

The count was attended by Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, who recently announced that he is to migrate from his traditional West Belfast stronghold to contest a seat in the south. Sinn Fein has not won a by-election in the Republic for 85 years. One of the questions in next year's election will be whether yesterday's result was a decisive shift towards the party, rather than being just an obvious protest vote.