Local factors may hamper FG-Labour strategy


Grassroots considerations could cause problems for Fine Gael's pact with Labour at constituency level in the next election, writes Michael O'Regan, Parliamentary Reporter

The chemistry between Fine Gael and Labour noticeably improved in the aftermath of Labour's conference decision to authorise a pre-election pact with the bigger party in advance of the next general election.

In the run-up to last Friday's Dáil recess, the two parties appeared to be operating as a united opposition in the face of several controversies dogging the FF-PD Coalition.

Fine Gael has indicated that it is prepared to co-operate at constituency level with Labour in the hope of maximising the number of seats for both parties.

However, as the Opposition parties prepare for a summer of intensive organisational work, party sources on both sides privately concede that there could be practical difficulties involved.

"What might work as a fine idea at party headquarters could meet with resistance from ambitious candidates on the ground," said a Fine Gael source.

"We were a party on our knees after the last election, demoralised and defeated. Enda Kenny has done a brilliant job in giving us hope again, and the first and last priority of many Fine Gael candidates will be to get elected to the Dáil. Forming a government with Labour will be secondary."

Labour sources hold a similar view. "Look, the internal party rivalries can be savage in themselves," said a Labour TD. "Co-operating with a rival party's candidate, apart from looking for transfers, would be difficult. Look at the strong rivalry between Fianna Fáil and the PDs, for instance at election time."

As always, the Dublin constituencies will be pivotal to the outcome of the next general election. Two, in particular, will prove to be an interesting barometer of the extent of co-operation possible on the ground.

Fine Gael is poised to win back seats in two one-time strongholds, Dún Laoghaire and Dublin South East.

Fine Gael once held two seats in Dún Laoghaire, but was left with none after the last election.

The current five-seater has two Fianna Fáil TDs, Minister for Education Mary Hanafin and Barry Andrews, as well as Ciarán Cuffe, of the Green Party, Fiona O'Malley, of the PDs, and Labour's Eamon Gilmore.

Last time, the Fine Gael vote slumped from 30.96 per cent to 15.04 per cent, but, as elsewhere, a strong local elections performance has put the party back in contention for a Dáil seat.

Maria Bailey and Donal Marren won seats for Fine Gael in the Ballybrack electoral area, with Mr Marren heading the poll. Ms Bailey's father, John Bailey, the Dublin GAA figure, headed the poll in the Dún Laoghaire electoral area.

Mr Gilmore is a solid electoral performer, destined for senior ministerial office if his party achieves power. He may well be prepared to play coalition politics, but what if the local organisation wants a push for a second Labour seat in this volatile constituency ?

In Dublin South East, where the party has no seat, Fine Gael councillors Lucinda Creighton, in the Pembroke ward, and Brian Gillen, in Rathmines, will be among those seeking a nomination. At the height of Dr Garret FitzGerald's career, the party held two seats in the constituency.

The seats are currently held by Minister for Justice Michael McDowell, Fianna Fáil's Eoin Ryan, Green Party's John Gormley and Labour's Ruairí Quinn.

Here, the Fine Gael vote fell from 27.38 per cent to 16.06 per cent, but a resurgence is clearly on the way.

Mr Quinn is expected to run again, but he will be conscious of his near miss the last time, despite his high profile as then party leader. His vote slipped quite dramatically, and he took the last seat. The likelihood is that he will still feel vulnerable the next time, and survival, rather than making an FG-Labour coalition his electoral priority, could be the name of the game.

There is much speculation about the future intentions of the the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and father of the House, Séamus Pattison, a Labour TD for Carlow-Kilkenny since 1961. The local speculation is that he may well run again. If he does not, Labour could be under pressure.

Local Fine Gael TD Phil Hogan, a key organisational strategist for the party, will be rewarded with a senior ministry by Enda Kenny if they make it to power. But will he want to push Fine Gael's chances, rather than look to Labour's options, in the five-seater?

In the three-seat Cork South-West, Fine Gael will be hoping to win back their second seat. Outgoing Fine Gael TD Jim O'Keeffe will run again, and the word locally is that PJ Sheean, who lost out last time, is as keen as ever to return to Leinster House.

But Labour has been carefully nursing this constituency, where the late Michael Pat Murphy held a seat for the party for many years.

Labour's chances will rest with Senator Michael McCarthy, from Dunmanway, who was a candidate in the last general election.

His election to the Upper House has boosted his profile, and he would do well in a situation where there was a swing to a FG-Labour alternative.

But where will that stand with Fine Gael's ambitions to win back two seats? They may feel the second Fianna Fáil seat is vulnerable with the decision of veteran FF TD Joe Walsh to stand down.

The two Kerry constituencies also bear looking at.

In Kerry North, members of the Spring family have firmly ruled out a return to representative politics. Jimmy Deenihan is the Fine Gael TD in the one-time seemingly impregnable Labour stronghold.

In the past, relations between the two party organisations has been tense, and it would take something of a change in the local political culture to have anything other than a basic transfer arrangement as part of a national strategy.

In the Kerry South three-seater, base of Minister for Tourism John O'Donoghue, there could be a strong battle for the last two seats between Fianna Fáil, the Healy-Rae dynasty, Fine Gael and outgoing Labour TD Breeda Moynihan-Cronin. Fine Gael, without a seat, once had in excess of a quota.