Sunday Independent


Sunday June 13th 2004
John Drennan,
Jimmy Guerin,
Eoghan Williams,
Jerome Reilly,
and Liam Collins

LOOKING BAD: Royston Brady and Bertie Ahern. Photo: David Conachy

THE voters' love affair with Fianna Fail is over, with local and European elections showing a swing against the party in the most dramatic mid-term reversal in recent years.

Fianna Fail's loss of support - spread around the country - was mostly to the benefit of Sinn Fein, which was last night poised to treble its vote in the local elections, and possibly win two seats in Europe.

Non-party candidates, as well as Labour candidates, have also shared in the gains - Labour is set to overtake Fianna Fail as the largest party in Dublin - while Fine Gael has held its own.

By last night, criticism of Bertie Ahern's leadership was building up among some elements in the party.

If Fianna Fail were to lose more than 80 local council seats, a crucial drop below the 300-seat threshold, the future of Bertie Ahern as Taoiseach and leader of the party would come into question.

Though the Taoiseach will seek to take comfort from a performance that is nowhere near as disastrous as Tony Blair's meltdown, already last night several party sources were talking about his future.

The Taoiseach's brother, Maurice Ahern, pondering the possible loss of his own seat on Dublin City Council, told the Sunday Independent: "The Ahern name did the damage."

And the Fianna Fail TD for Dublin South Central, Michael Mulcahy, said: "I don't blame the TDs. I blame the Government. I wasn't invited to become a member of the Government. Yet this Government has given the people at least 100 reasons to hate us. Look at the bin tax, the anti-smoking legislation, decentralisation. How can you expect people to look at us?"

Mr Ahern's other brother, Noel Ahern - a junior Minister for the Environment - said: "We had expected a poor result, but we had not expected things to be this bad. Today's results are a serious problem for Fianna Fail."

While most of his critics are awaiting more definitive results, Fianna Fail senator Liam Fitzgerald was also downbeat, based on tally figures.

He said: "It's a dark day for Fianna Fail, probably one of our darkest."

Responding to predictions of major Fianna Fail losses, FF TD Charlie O'Connor said that the next parliamentary party meeting would be "an exciting affair".

Asked if the losses presented a threat to Taoiseach Bertie Ahern's leadership of FF, he added that he was a committed supporter of Mr Ahern and would be devastated if the Taoiseach "took a decision to go anywhere else".

There is speculation that Mr Ahern may opt for the European Union presidency, particularly if the party does as badly in local elections as early tallies predict.

But if Mr Ahern does not seek the plum position, his anticipated autumn Cabinet reshuffle (including second-tier ministers) will represent one of the most significant moments of his political career.

Mr O'Connor said: "If we are to analyse these results, they are clearly sending a message."

He added: "The Government has to look at its policies, at what the people want. There are some messages there certainly on a wide range of things such as waste management."

Fianna Fail TD junior Minister for Health Brian Lenihan said that the election results gave rise to concerns on the part of the Government.

"Of course, with mid-term elections, it is customary to have an anti-Government vote," added the minister, who appeared shocked at the extent of his party's losses in the capital's local elections.

But he rejected as "out of the question" any threat to Bertie Ahern's leadership of Fianna Fail as a result of the party's bad showing.

Neither was it a good election for the junior party in government, the Progressive Democrats. Party leader Mary Harney will be bitterly disappointed that the PDs failed to make any substantial inroads in the target constituencies of its sitting TDs.

Last night, Dr Ruairi Hanley, a PD candidate for Wicklow County Council and a doctor in Loughlinstown Hospital, questioned Ms Harney's future.

He said: "It's time to relaunch and rename the Progressive Democrats, and the issue of the leadership cannot be deferred for any longer.

"It's desperate that, in Wicklow, Sinn Fein will end up with three councillors more than the PDs."

Early tally figures for the local and European elections suggest a strong performance by Sinn Fein and by the Independents.

In the Dublin constituency, with half of the ballot boxes for the European election opened, Fine Gael's Gay Mitchell is currently heading the poll with just over 22 per cent of the vote.

Eoin Ryan is the leading Fianna Fail candidate, with 16 per cent, compared to just 8 per cent for Royston Brady, who appears to have been badly damaged by the controversy surrounding his unsubstantiated claim that his father's taxi was used as a getaway car after the Dublin-Monaghan bombings in 1974.

Labour's Proinsias de Rossa is on almost 13 per cent, ahead of running mate Ivana Bacik on 10 per cent.

The final seat, according to the tallies, will be between Ms Bacik, Sinn Fein's Mary Lou McDonald on 12 per cent and Patricia McKenna of the Greens on 10 per cent.

In the South constituency, tallies show Simon Coveney of Fine Gael ahead of Brian Crowley of Fianna Fail at the top of the poll.

The third seat will be between Kathy Sinnott and Gerry Collins, with most tallies showing her ahead.

In the North West constituency, the big surprise is the strong performance of SF's Pearse Doherty, although he would still need substantial transfers to take a seat.

Fianna Fail's two candidates, Jim McDaid and Sean O Neachtain, appear to be neck-and-neck, while Marian Harkin is ahead of the sitting Independent, Dana Rosemary Scallon. Tallies indicate that Ms Harkin could take more than 60 per cent of the vote in her home base of Sligo.

Jim Higgins is the leading Fine Gael candidate, battling to take a seat.

In the East constituency, Fine Gael's Mairead McGuinness is out-polling running mate Avril Doyle. It is now looking unlikely at this stage that Fine Gael will take two seats in this area.

Liam Aylward of Fianna Fail and Labour's Peter Cassells look likely to take the other two seats.

First indications in the citizenship referendum suggest that it will be passed by a comfortable majority. The result will be announced early this evening.

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