Harney plays down leadership question


PD party conference:  The Tánaiste was expected late last night to play down speculation that she would quit as PD leader during the lifetime of the Government. Mark Brennock and Arthur Beesley report from Galway

With Ms Harney due to address party members after a dinner to mark the opening of this weekend's annual conference, official party sources said she would definitively rule out the idea that she would step down. Earlier yesterday, however, she did not indicate how long she intended to stay in the post.

One of the first motions on this morning's agenda is a proposal to change the mechanism for the election of the party leader to a one-member one-vote system. However, the motion is expected to be deferred until autumn.

Ms Harney pointed out that while she had been Tánaiste for six years, her predecessor, Mr Dick Spring, had led the Labour party for 16 years. "I've a long way to go yet to beat his record." Asked on Today FM's Last Word programme how long she would remain, she said she had turned 50 last week: "I certainly don't believe you should write yourself off at such an early age as 50."

Ms Harney spoke after the Minister of State Mr Tom Parlon indicated he would be interested in the job, but said the leadership was a "non issue" at the moment.

On RTE Radio 1's News at One programme he said he was hoping that Ms Harney would put the matter to bed in her address. He said he had entered politics a year ago because of Ms Harney, whose leadership he described as "inspirational".

Asked if he planned to seek the leadership when it became vacant, he said "perhaps I would" but suggested the issue might not emerge for five or 10 years. Everybody in politics was interested in advancement, he said.

Ms Harney also said if there was a leadership contest, there would probably be other contenders other than the Minister for Justice, Mr Michael McDowell, and Mr Tom Parlon, who are frequently mentioned. "There may be ambitious women too. I wouldn't say the race would be just confined to Michael and Pat." She welcomed the fact that the mechanism for electing the leader was under discussion. There were "differing views" on this, she said.

The motion proposed by the Dublin South-East constituency of Mr McDowell would change the current system in which only parliamentary party members can vote in leadership elections.

The adoption of such a one-member one-vote system is believed likely to favour the leadership prospects of Mr McDowell, who is popular throughout the party. However, 20 per cent of the party's membership now comes from Mr Parlon's constituency.

Ms Harney was expected to depart from her prepared script late last night to address the leadership issue. In her prepared speech she said the party had had a great year and an election that had "closed the door forever on civil war politics".