Government parties hope to woo electorate during six months
Ireland's EU presidency will serve as the backdrop to the politicallycrucial European elections, writes Michael O'Regan.
The Government is hoping that the fallout from this high profile EU presidency will boost its chances in the European elections.
The Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, will be anxious that his party performs well in the aftermath of his six months as EU president and in advance of his promised Cabinet reshuffle.
A good performance would considerably enhance his stature as party leader and Taoiseach and provide him with the political clout to carry out a significant reshuffle of his ministers, bringing in new blood from the backbenches.
Backbencher dissatisfaction with Mr Ahern has abated somewhat following his strong performance at a pre-Christmas parliamentary party meeting. But it will certainly resurface if the party does badly in the European elections. A poor performance in the local elections, to be held at the same time, would compound his difficulties.
From that point of view, the European presidency could not be coming at a better time. Mr Ahern and his ministers will dominate the European stage, with several high-profile gatherings. Ministers will have the opportunity to host some of those gatherings in their constituencies.
The imponderable is the extent to which a cynical and disillusioned electorate will be impressed by all of this. A procession of ministerial limousines adding to urban gridlock might be a source of annoyance rather than national pride.
Fianna Fáil's government partner, the PDs, will also be hoping that the EU presidency will provide the party with a boost in the elections.
The political test for the Opposition parties and Independents will be to create a distraction from the glow of the EU presidency and put the focus on the economy and local issues. The Fine Gael leader, Mr Enda Kenny, and the Labour leader, Mr Pat Rabbitte, will face their first electoral tests as party leaders and will be expected to deliver. The Green Party, usually impressive EU election performers, will be hoping to at least hold their two seats.
There will be considerable interest in the performance of Sinn Féin.
Changes in the constituency boundaries, and the reduction in Ireland's representation in the European Parliament, agreed in the Nice Treaty, from 15 to 13, were announced by a Government-appointed commission last October.
This altered political scenario makes the outcome of the elections difficult to predict and poses headaches for all parties and Independents.
Leinster and Munster were reduced from four to three seats each. Clare was transferred from Munster to the current Connacht-Ulster constituency, which remained a three-seater. The boundary of the Dublin constituency remained the county boundary with the number of seats unchanged at four.
The commission also recommended that the constituencies be named Dublin, East, formerly Leinster, South, formerly Munster, and North-West, formerly Connacht-Ulster.
Dublin could provide Sinn Féin with its first Euro MEP in Ms Mary Lou McDonald, who polled 2,404 first preference votes in Dublin West in the 2002 general election.
The party has since grown in strength in the capital, with Ms McDonald's profile increasing. Political observers notice that she was given a very high profile by the party during the Northern elections, posing for photographs and television cameras with the leader, Mr Gerry Adams.
Most under threat from the challenge could be the Green Party's Ms Patricia McKenna.
Fine Gael had hoped to run former Taoiseach, Mr John Bruton, but he has opted to stay in domestic politics. With outgoing MEP, Ms Mary Banotti, retiring, the party is seeking a high-profile candidate.
The barrister and environmentalist, Mr Colm Mac Eochaidh, has already declared an interest in running.
With Fianna Fáil's Mr Niall Andrews retiring, the party is expected to run the Dublin South East TD, Mr Eoin Ryan. However, finding a northside running mate could be difficult, with the party's TDs north of the Liffey reluctant to run.
Fianna Fáil is expected to hold one seat, while Labour's Mr Proinsias De Rossa, whose running mate is TCD law professor, Ms Ivana Bacik, is also expected to hold his seat.
This could see Fine Gael, Labour and the Green Party battling it out for the remaining two seats.
A dark horse could be former junior minister for foreign affairs, Ms Liz O'Donnell, of the PDs, who has yet to decide if she will run. Equally to be watched is the Socialist Party TD, Mr Joe Higgins, who is expected to run.
In the East constituency, Fianna Fáil has two seats, Fine Gael and the Green Party one each.
Fianna Fáil has to find high profile candidates, following the decision of its outgoing MEPs, Mr Jim Fitzsimons and Mr Liam Hyland, to retire.
Current speculation centres on the Ministers of State, Mr John Browne and Mr Liam Aylward.
The Green Party's MEP, Ms Nuala Ahern, is retiring and has been replaced on the ticket by former Carlow-Kilkenny Dáil candidate, Ms Mary White, who will be a strong challenger for a seat.
Fine Gael's Ms Avril Doyle will be attempting to retain her seat, while Mr Peter Cassells, executive chairman of the National Centre for Partnership and Performance, and barrister, Mr Peter Ward, are in the running to be the Labour candidate.
In the South, most interest will centre on the future intentions of former Fianna Fáil minister for foreign affairs and current MEP, Mr Gerard Collins, who played a high profile role in Ireland's EU presidency in the past.
With outgoing MEPs, the EU Parliament president, Mr Pat Cox, an Independent, and Fianna Fáil's Mr Brian Crowley, tipped to retain their seats, the battle for the third seat is likely to be between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Fine Gael will have to find a replacement for Mr John Cushnahan, who is retiring. Names such as Cork TDs Mr Simon Coveney and Mr Bernard Allen have been mentioned.
Cork senator, Mr Paul Bradford, and Limerick senator, Mr Michael Finucane, may also be in the running. Cork senators, Mr Brendan Ryan, and Mr Michael McCarthy, have been mentioned as Labour contestants.
In the North West, there will be interest in the performance of Ms Dana Rosemary Scallon, the Independent, whom the political parties think could be vulnerable to a challenge. That challenge might come from the Sligo-Leitrim Independent, Ms Marian Harkin, who has yet to decide if she will run.
Fianna Fáil's Mr Seán Ó Neachtain, who replaced the Minister of State, Mr Pat "Cope" Gallagher, following his return to domestic politics, will seek a nomination.
The Galway-based Minister of State, Mr Frank Fahey, is considering his position, while his Donegal counterpart on the junior ministerial benches, Dr Jim McDaid, has ruled himself out. The Sligo senator, Mr Marc MacSharry, may throw his hat in the ring.
The Fine Gael candidate will be the Mayo senator, Mr Jim Higgins, replacing the party's retiring MEP, Mr Joe McCartin.
It was expected that the Donegal senator, Mr Joe McHugh, would be his running mate, but he has firmly ruled himself out. This constituency could be the only one in the State to record no change in party and Independent representation, despite the change in personnel.