Dail to investigate Foley's ethics as Fianna Fail factions line up to do battle for his seat

 

Denis Foley says he may well contest the next general election for Fianna Fail in Kerry North. "As of now, I will be a candidate, but it remains to be seen." That Mr Foley (66) will not be a candidate is a virtual certainty.

First elected to the Dail in 1981, even before it was revealed that he had an Ansbacher account he was expected to retire at the next election, making way for his daughter, Norma, chairwoman of Tralee Urban Council. His insistence that he might run relates to his concern that his daughter's campaign should not peak too soon.

With a general election not expected until the summer of next year, there is no urgency about holding the selection convention. But Kerry North is now a Fianna Fail black spot, and a source of exasperation to Bertie Ahern, according to party insiders.

The heady days when the party held two seats there are a distant memory. In 1997 Fianna Fail secured 26.31 per cent of the vote, 10.2 per cent below its previous lowest in 1992. For a time in the 1970s and early 1980s its share of the vote was over 50 per cent.

With Labour's Dick Spring and Fine Gael's Jimmy Deenihan considered to have two secure seats in the three-seater, Fianna Fail's worst nightmare is that the party could lose to Sinn Fein's Martin Ferris, a county councillor, whose 5,691 first preference votes in 1997 put him ahead of Mr Foley on the first count.

The party recently hoped to groom the high-profile GAA county board chairman, Sean Walsh, as a candidate, intending to give him a vacant Seanad seat from which to fight the general election. But the local organisation rebelled and Mr Walsh withdrew. A selection convention bloodbath now seems inevitable.

Tralee-based Ms Foley is likely to be joined in seeking a nomination by Tom McEllistrim, the third generation of the McEllistrim dynasty and a county councillor from just outside the town. Senator Dan Kiely from Tarbert will also be a candidate, as could Listowel-based county councillor Ned O'Sullivan, and Tralee-based Kerry County Council chairman Ted Fitzgerald.

It is difficult to see how Mr McEllistrim and Senator Kiely can be denied a nomination, given their impressive performances in the local elections.

In the Tralee electoral area, where Fianna Fail increased its share of the vote by nearly nine points, Mr McEllistrim, whose father and grandfather were Kerry North TDs, ail, had 1,638 first preferences compared to Denis Foley's 1,443, while Mr Ferris outpolled them both with 2,458.

Senator Kiely secured 2,020 first preferences in the Listowel area, trailing poll-topper Mr Deenihan, who had 2,321.

Local party sources say the Foley camp may have made a tactical error in not running Norma Foley for the county council, rather than her father. She takes her politics seriously, moving to Tralee from Cork where she was a teacher, and she is an impressive chairwoman of the urban council. But a county council seat would have given her more exposure throughout the constituency.

Meanwhile, Mr Foley, an independent deputy since resigning the party whip, has some pressing business in Leinster House.

The Committee on Members' Interests is expected to begin its hearings next month into whether he breached the ethics Act, which requires Oireachtas members to make a declaration when voting or speaking on a matter in the Dail in which they have a material interest.

In September 1997 Mr Foley voted on a Dail motion on the Moriarty tribunal while having an Ansbacher account.

Mr Foley has been striving to maintain a high profile, not least when he escorted Mr Ahern into the funeral parlour at the removal of the body of former TD and senator Tom McEllis trim last month, and at the party's recent ardfheis.

It is clear that the party remains vulnerable to internal strife and to the Sinn Fein push to win a seat.