'A very bad performance' - Ahern


Fianna Fáil suffered "a very bad performance" in the European Parliament and local elections, the Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, has conceded.

"We lost this election, there is no doubt about that. Sinn Féin won it," Mr Ahern told journalists yesterday. "I can give you a look at the votes in local elections where you can look on this, where it is not so much personality. We lost 7 per cent of the vote," he said.

However, he went on to claim that Fine Gael and Labour had "nothing to celebrate".

"Look at the figures, they are only marginally up - 1 per cent is very little. SF are up 4.5 per cent, so I think that we are the losers."

Mr Ahern said he was sorry Fianna Fáil had lost 20 per cent of their council seats. "A huge amount of my colleagues who work very hard and who slaved for the last number of months have lost their seats, so I am not happy."

Fianna Fáil had "lost a lot of support in working-class areas of different parts of the country, both in urban Ireland and rural Ireland", he said.

However, Mr Ahern rejected speculation that he would be tempted by the European Commission presidency position. "I will lead FF into the next general election," he said.

Mr Ahern will report to the European Council on Thursday on efforts to fill the vacancy left by Mr Romano Prodi.

He said he would carefully reflect on the implications of the elections results before deciding on the Cabinet reshuffle in September: "We have to finish out our presidency of the EU . . . I don't finish the presidency, nor do my colleagues, until the 21st of July."

Meanwhile, two senior ministers strongly backed the Taoiseach's leadership of the party.

The Minister for Finance, Mr McCreevy, told The Irish Times that there was absolutely no question mark over Mr Ahern's leadership. "I do not think there is anybody in the party making his leadership an issue."

Warning against reading too much significance into local election results, the Minister said it was difficult to say how the figures would impact in a general election. "I suppose one could anticipate that after seven years of power, people would take the opportunity to give the Government a bit of a kicking."

He said there had been gains for the party in some areas, not least in Kildare County Council where the party had secured an extra seat. He was attending a constituency function in Leixlip.

Earlier, the Minister for Health, Mr Martin, said Mr Ahern was the man to lead the party into the next general election. He said: "He is a superb leader of the party. When he took over in 1994, we were in a very difficult phase at that stage. He created a united party. We need his energy. He has the capacity to overcome this setback." Mr Martin said that traditionally governments did not do well in mid-term elections.

"Also, in modern politics, surprises happen. We saw in the last general election, for example, where Fine Gael suffered at the polls in terms of percentages and seats."

He said that the party would have to learn from the loss of seats. "There is a perception out there about the Government, and I think we will have to work on that more and convey the true sense of what this Government is about."