FG has uphill fight to regain seat Harte made his own


CONSTITUENCY NOTEBOOK: Much attention will focus on the performance of Fine Gael in Donegal North-East, where the party lost a seat at the last general election and now faces a major battle to try to win it back from the Blaney camp.

There is general agreement that Fianna Fáil's two TDs, the Minister for Tourism and Sport, Dr Jim McDaid, and backbencher Cecilia Keaveney, will be returned.

Opinions differ only on who will top the poll. A TG4/MRBI poll, carried out in early April, found McDaid ahead, taking 25 per cent of first preferences. The generosity he showed to his own county when handing out lottery funding is bound to be in his favour now and the consensus locally is that his controversial comments on suicide will not damage him.

Inishowen peninsula is expected to rally strongly behind Cecilia Keaveney to ensure that it has its own TD. The poll showed her coming in close behind McDaid on 22 per cent and she may outpoll him.

This election is seen as crucial for Fine Gael, which is pinning its hopes on Seán Maloney, who defected from the Labour Party.

Internal Fine Gael divisions in the run-up to the last election helped to put an end to the career of the party's long-serving TD, Paddy Harte. His support on that occasion dipped below 5,000 votes from a high at one time of about 9,000.

Maloney's selection also proved controversial and some Fine Gael supporters are reluctant to throw their weight fully behind him. The TG4/MRBI poll concluded that Fine Gael would fail to get a seat because transfers between the party's two candidates were not solid.

Maloney's running-mate is Bernard McGuinness, a fellow county councillor, based in Inishowen. The poll found that between them they would secure almost a quota, but that this would not be enough to keep out Niall Blaney, son of retiring TD Harry Blaney. Maloney came in at 15 per cent and McGuinness at 8 per cent.

Maloney believes that the picture has changed since the poll was taken and says that, "regardless of rumours", there are no problems in the camp.

He says that he and McGuinness are "working extremely well together" and that a lot of former members of Fine Gael are now back in the fold.

Fine Gael is aiming for a transfer rate of 45 to 50 per cent as opposed to the 30 per cent shown in the poll. The Letter-kenny/Inishowen split means that it could not go any higher than this, he says.

The "Harte" factor is still an issue, however. County councillor Jimmy Harte, son of the former TD, ultimately decided not to run as an Independent, although the TG4/MRBI poll, which included him in the ballot, gave him 8 per cent. Maloney insists that many Harte supporters are now backing him. The outcome will depend to what extent Fine Gael supporters rally together - if they cannot win back the seat this time, it may prove even harder next time.

Niall Blaney is hoping to take his father's seat, as the TG4/MRBI poll predicted, with 20 per cent of first preferences. A member of the county council, his profile is not seen as being particularly high, but the Independent Fianna Fáil machine has proved very effective at elections in the past.

While the poll found the Labour vote collapsing from 5 to 2 per cent, candidate Jackie McNair believes that he will poll much higher. The Save The Swilly environmental group has thrown its weight behind him since musician Phil Coulter said he would not be running and a joint Green Party/Save The Swilly candidate also withdrew. The Labour Party leader, Ruairí Quinn, made a point of meeting Phil Coulter and other Save The Swilly representatives while canvassing in Donegal.

Sinn Féin's Padraig McLochlainn is expected to at least maintain the party's 8 per share, polling strongest among young voters.

Prediction: FF 2, Ind 1. No change.

1997: FF 41.81%; FG 18.87%; Lab 5.48%; SF 8.11%; Others 25.73%.

Outgoing TDs: Jim McDaid and Cecilia Keaveney (FF); Harry Blaney (Ind).