First blood to Howlin as Stagg and Ferris say they will support him


The opening shots in the battle for the leadership of the Labour Party have been fired by Mr Brendan Howlin's supporters, with declarations by two TDs that they will back him in next Thursday's vote.

Mr Emmet Stagg from Kildare and Mr Michael Ferris, Tipperary South, have both said they will be voting for Mr Howlin. More supporters of Mr Howlin may make such declarations shortly, but it is understood that at this stage at least, there will be no such public declarations from supporters of Mr Ruairi Quinn.

With Mr Dick Spring due to leave his post tomorrow, Mr Quinn takes over the mantle for six days. It now seems likely that Mr Howlin and Mr Quinn will be the only candidates. By tonight, each will have spoken to every member of the 64-strong electorate, the Parliamentary Labour Party and the governing body, the general council.

The former Arts, Culture and Gaeltacht Minister, Mr Michael D. Higgins, is not believed to be interested in putting his name forward.

Some supporters of Mr Howlin in the parliamentary party have decided that a public confirmation of endorsement would send a positive signal to the general council, a group whose voting intentions are extremely difficult to assess.

Mr Stagg told The Irish Times last night that having spoken to the two candidates, he had decided to vote for Mr Howlin. He will now return to his local constituency council and recommend that its members on the general council take a similar course of action to his own.

Mr Ferris had earlier indicated that he would be backing Mr Howlin also, and said he had told both candidates of his intentions before going public. It is expected that other deputies will do the same for the Wexford TD by the weekend. This "drip, drip" strategy is designed to elicit maximum support from the non-Oireachtas voters.

According to Mr Ferris, who is Mr Howlin's assistant chief whip, he had decided to support him on the basis that as leader he would devote himself solely to the rebuilding of the party.

"In fairness to Mr Quinn, I think he would devote the same energies, but when it comes to this you have to be honest with yourself and the candidates. I have only one vote and you cast it on balance. They deserve to know where we stand. Whoever wins will make an excellent leader."

Up to last night, those championing Mr Quinn's cause had decided not to follow the lead given by Mr Ferris and Mr Stagg.

By agreement, both candidates have decided that neither should have an election manager and each is directing his own campaign. It has also been agreed that party staff should not participate on behalf of either side.

Both men are personally making contact with the electorate but, in spite of a meeting of the general council in Dublin today, will not set out their stalls until they address next week's gathering to elect Mr Spring's successor.

With the canvass due to intensify over the weekend, sources close to both camps are predicting victory for their respective candidate.

Mr Quinn's experience as Minister for Finance, a high public profile, and his accessibility are cited among his strongest suits. His work on a lengthy document outlining a new vision for Ireland in the 21st Century is likely to be examined again in the next week.

He is a regular contributor to Tilt, a Labour party magazine, and he accepted in an article in the autumn edition that the party had failed to sell a positive message of what it wanted "as the Labour party in government" after the general election.

Mr Howlin's youth, energy and capacity for hard work are counted among his attributes. Sources in the party say that, given his working class background, he is "much more amenable" to the old Labour constituency. If they carry any weight at this stage, his credentials as a "traditional" Labour member are seen as stronger than those of Mr Quinn, who had a middle-class upbringing.

Ideologically, the two politicians are similar and carry no baggage in relation to coalition with Fianna Fail.

The ballot to decide a new leader will take place in Labour's party room in Kildare House, close to Leinster House. The result should be known early on Thursday afternoon.