FF dreams of a third seat, but opposition will make its mark


CONSTITUENCY REPORT: Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are not the only players in Wexford - a Sinn Féin councillor and two independents are also contending, writes Chris Dooley, South East Correspondent.

Since Ivan Yates announced his shock decision to quit politics last year, Fianna Fáil has been dreaming of a third seat in Wexford. When Tony Dempsey, the popular manager of the Wexford hurling team, agreed to accept the third slot on the Fianna Fáil ticket, the dream began to look like reality.

Fine Gael had lost not only Yates, but another high-profile campaigner in Avril Doyle MEP. When private polls told it in March that the party was in danger of losing its second seat, Ms Doyle answered the call to return to the national stage.

Since then, it has been game on in Wexford, and the two main parties are not the only players. Two strong independents and a Sinn Féin councillor adept at the publicity stakes will also have a decisive say in the final outcome.

The only near-certainties are that the Labour deputy leader Brendan Howlin and Fianna Fáil's John Browne will hold their seats. As a backbencher, Mr Browne has escaped the blame for a series of job losses in the constituency and is geographically best-placed to benefit from Mr Yates's retirement.

Mr Howlin was elected on the first count in 1997 and is perceived to have delivered for the county when he and Mr Yates were Cabinet colleagues in the Rainbow Coalition.

The problem for the current Minister of State, Fianna Fáil's Hugh Byrne, is that the county has had a particularly bad time on the jobs front, with the closure of companies such as Wexal and Wexford Weaving last year with a combined loss of 300 jobs.

Wexford Electronix, another major employer, is in receivership and has seen its staff numbers cut from 365 at the end of last year to 100. As Minister of State for the Marine, Mr Byrne can hardly be blamed for such setbacks, but he is most in the firing line if anger at the job losses translates into votes for the opposition.

Mr Dempsey, however, could also suffer as most of the job cuts have been in the Wexford town area, where he is based. But he is well-known through- out the county and will pick up votes from all areas.

If Fianna Fáil fails to get its third seat, both Mr Byrne and Mr Dempsey face an anxious day at the count centre before their fates are sealed.

And what of Fine Gael? Of its three candidates Ms Doyle, despite having to fight in a very crowded Wexford town area, is considered best placed to take a seat. She makes no secret of her ministerial ambitions should Fine Gael get back into power. In the event of a meltdown for the party, there are some who think of her as leadership material.

For many years she and running mate Michael D'Arcy played musical chairs with the second Fine Gael seat, each winning alternate elections.

Gorey-based Mr D'Arcy is currently the man in possession but, despite having a relatively free run in the north of the county, he is likely to lose out if Fine Gael does not retain its two seats.

The party's third candidate, newcomer Paul Kehoe, is attempting to fill Mr Yates's shoes in Enniscorthy. He is unlikely to make it this time, but he has the active support of much of the team which made Mr Yates the biggest vote-getter in the constituency. Mr Yates himself, it is understood, has also increased his involvement in Mr Kehoe's campaign in recent weeks.

Dr Liam Twomey, a Rosslare-based GP is running as an independent to highlight, in particular, deficiencies in the health service.

Mr Seán Doyle, an Enniscorthy-based member of Wexford County Council, is also running as an independent in his first general election since the early 1980s, when he stood for Sinn Féin. He left that party in 1984.

Prediction: FF 2, FG 2, Lab 1. No change.

1997: FF 38.95%; FG 38.58%; Lab 17.08%; GP 1.68%; DL 2.61%; Others 1.11%.

Outgoing TDs: Hugh Byrne and John Browne (FF); Ivan Yates and Michael D'Arcy (FG); Brendan Howlin (Lab).