Cork by-election will be a tough contest to the end


Cork South Central's voters are spoiled for choice in Friday's byelection. The main political parties have presented them with a slate of quality candidates of which any constituency could be proud in a general election.

It is unlikely the result will determine the fate of a government, but it will mark out the future for Bertie Ahern and John Bruton for coming years.

Cork South Central is a formidable two-horse race between the two attractive, young and articulate - but totally distinctive - Fianna Fail and Fine Gael candidates.

Ms Sinead Behan (29), a solicitor who is steeped in Fianna Fail since her Ogra days, is also an athlete who has represented Ireland at 400 metres. She faces the formidable task of raising her party's representation in the constituency to four out of five seats. Unusually in a by-election, she seems to have the full-blooded support of the party at local and national level.

The professionalism of her campaign was very obvious in Togher last Friday. She was accompanied by the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, Dermot Ahern, Ivor Callely, Brian Kelleher, Senator Anne Leonard, and a group of local members, while the Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, was meeting the EU Commissioner for Regional Affairs, Ms Monika Wulf-Mathies. Her canvassers were assisted by her easygoing manner at the doors.

Mr Simon Coveney (26) is attempting to hold the Fine Gael seat won by his late father, Hugh. Even apart from the sympathy factor given the unfortunate circumstances of his death, the popularity of Hugh Coveney as one of Cork's princes was almost unprecedented. But the focus at doors has moved to Simon Coveney himself in the last week after a series of debates featuring all the candidates on local radio stations.

Canvassing in Ballincollig on Friday, it was quite obvious the Fine Gael leadership has invested hugely in this by-election. So large was the canvassing contingent from the party's top echelons - John Bruton, Nora Owen, former presidential candidate Mary Banotti MEP, Enda Kenny, Jim Higgins, Joe McCartin MEP, Deirdre Clune and Senator Dino Cregan - that they were forced to split in two to blitz the town politically.

Labour's Toddy O'Sullivan is campaigning to win back the seat which he held for 16 years until last year's general election. He is acutely conscious that, for the first time since the foundation of the State in 1922, there is no Labour representation in the Oireachtas from the five constituencies in Cork city and county.

Though he admits that, for the first time, age is an issue in this by-election (he will be aged 64 next month), this factor was not referred to in a canvass of Glasheen on Thursday night.

If that canvass of his home area was replicated in Friday's result, Labour would be set to win three by-elections in a row in this Dail.

It seems, instead, that Toddy O'Sullivan will be the king-maker, with the expectation that his transfers will determine the outcome.

It is generally accepted that the other candidates - Dan Boyle (Green Party), Peter Kelly (Progressive Democrats) and Harry Cremins (Sinn Fein) - will be happy to build a good base for the local elections. The acrimony between the two coalition candidates, Mr Kelly and Ms Behan, is a notable feature in local debates and should make the transfer pattern interesting.

The poll published in yesterday's Sunday Independent bears out what party strategists feel is happening on the ground.

It put Mr Coveney marginally ahead of Ms Behan - 35 per cent to 34 per cent - on the first count. He is poised to win the seat on transfers, according to the poll, as hopes of a comeback for Toddy O'Sullivan fade.

The opinion poll findings will not surprise the three main parties, but they will be acutely aware nothing can be taken for granted. Since the poll was conducted on Tuesday and Wednesday of last week, a full 10 days before Friday's by-election, a hot contest will continue right up to Thursday night.

It would be wrong to underestimate the challenge facing Mr Coveney to have a higher first preference vote than Fianna Fail to be sure of winning the seat. Fianna Fail polled 42.62 per cent in Cork South Central in last year's general election, compared to 30.57 for Fine Gael.

Similarly, it would also be wrong to underestimate the reluctance of any constituency to give one party four of the five seats.

That argument is being challenged by the suggestion, sotto voce, that the Taoiseach will be conducting a reshuffle of Ministers of State after the European elections, and Cork would have to be in the reckoning with a fourout-of-five result.

Considering all factors, party strategists believe Mr Coveney will win on Friday, assisted by a higher rate of transfers.

Ms Behan would have to be 5 or 6 per cent ahead on the first count to take the seat.

The surprise is that many in Fianna Fail believe that is not impossible.