Fine Gael to proceed with election of new party leader


Fine Gael is to go ahead with electing a new leader today despite calls from party members to postpone the contest to allow them have a say.

Some 150 people attended a meeting in Dublin last night to protest at the leadership election being conducted without the grassroots being involved.

One of the organisers, Mr Colm MacEochaidh, who ran as a candidate in Dublin South East, told the meeting he would turn up at the parliamentary party meeting in Leinster House this afternoon and demand a hearing from the party's TDs, senators and MEPs.

The meeting to select a leader to replace Mr Michael Noonan is due to begin at 2.30 p.m. Nominations closed yesterday and four people put their names forward.

They are: Mr Richard Bruton TD, Dublin North Central; Mr Phil Hogan TD, Carlow/Kilkenny; Mr Enda Kenny TD, Mayo; Mr Gay Mitchell TD, Dublin South Central.

Mr MacEochaidh said it was not the purpose of last night's meeting to create division within the party. "I am all for debate; that's why I am in politics. It's not too late for TDs and members of the parliamentary party to put forward an adjournment motion tomorrow. I hope that is what they will do."

Mr Simon Coveney, the deputy party whip, who attended the meeting, said the party would be rudderless until September if they did not elect a leader now. There would be no effective opposition at a time when there were important issues to be considered. He now believed a delay would be counterproductive.

The meeting was also addressed by Mr Richard Bruton and party chairman, Mr Padraic McCormack.

At today's meeting each of the four candidates will be proposed and seconded. The proposers will speak, as well as each of the candidates. Mr Coveney said he expected that a result would be known before 6 p.m.

Party sources said last night that it was very difficult to predict who would be the winner. They expected a close contest which would be decided on transfers. The system of voting is proportional representation. There are 49 TDs, senators and MEPs entitled to vote and the quota is 25.

Senator Maurice Manning said yesterday he did not believe the new leader would be damaged by the controversy surrounding the election and in fact he felt the current "very passionate" debate was good for the party. "They wanted to make the point and they made it very strongly and I think we have to listen," said Mr Manning who indicated that he would not be standing in the Seanad election.

Speaking on RTÉ radio he said he would be making way for "new blood" in the Seanad. "I feel that I should lead by example." The decision to hold the leadership election today was made for very good reasons and in good faith by two- thirds of the parliamentary party last week, he said.

"There was the fear that over a three-month period there would be a vacuum there. There is going to be the most competitive opposition in the history of the State. If Fine Gael is a bystander with no leader during the early formative life of this Dáil then we would risk having permanent damage inflicted upon us," he said.