Mitchell points to structure, ethos, image as reasons for party losses


ANALYSIS/Fine Gael: Structure, image and ethos are the three main reasons for Fine Gael's decimation at the ballot box, according to one of the party's three surviving Dublin TDs.

Mr Gay Mitchell, who returned as TD for Dublin South-Central, escaped the party's implosion along with Mr Richard Bruton, now the only Fine Gael TD on Dublin's north-side (Dublin North-Central), and Ms Olivia Mitchell (Dublin South).

Mr Mitchell and Mr Bruton are now likely leadership contenders following Mr Michael Noonan's resignation.

The party has gone from 12 TDs in the Dublin area to just a quarter of that figure and, in terms of seats, is now only the fifth largest party in the capital. Dublin city represents an almost complete wipe-out in party front bench TDs. Seven TDs were defeated in Dublin city and for the first time in its history Fine Gael failed to return a single deputy in its former heartland of Dún Laoghaire.

As the party convulsed over its resounding defeat, a calm Gay Mitchell outlined the reasons for the losses and the potential solutions.

Speaking to reporters at the RDS count over the weekend, he said the party structure operated at "branch level" and that had to change. Fine Gael also had an image problem and its ethos was a major factor.

The party was a member of the European People's Party - Christian Democrats. "We should not be afraid to say we're Christian Democrats," he said. "We're not right of centre, we're a centrist party. And we're not just Christian, there are Jews and others involved as well."

He declined to comment on whether he would be going forward for the leadership but said that anybody contemplating that role should realise "there will be more than one hat in the ring".

Among the Fine Gael losers in Dublin were the deputy leader Jim Mitchell (Dublin Central) justice spokesman Alan Shatter (Dublin South), former deputy leader Nora Owen (Dublin North), and the party's spokeswoman on children, Ms Frances Fitzgerald (Dublin South-East, a former party stronghold, which up to 1997 had two seats and also elected two Taoisigh, Dr Garret FitzGerald and Mr John A Costello).

Ms Fitzgerald, the only losing TD at the RDS count, was "very, very disappointed". That was "the reality of politics". She believed it was a "coalition of factors". Issues at local level did not translate nationally and the electorate saw "no alternative Government".

The party also suffered a loss in Brian Hayes (Dublin South-West), one of its younger TDs and a member of the front bench, who was talked of as a potential future leader.

Losses also included Austin Currie (Dublin West) and Michael J Cosgrave (Dublin-North East).

Gay Mitchell expressed his disappointment that his older brother, Jim, was not re-elected. He would be "very lonely" in the Dáil without him. His defeat was attributed in large measure to the constituency boundary changes.

Jim Mitchell did not go to the RDS but told RTÉ he would not be returning to politics. However, his brother believed it would be a "terrible loss of resources" if Jim's huge organisational skills were not availed of.

Speaking after his election to Dublin North Central, Richard Bruton described the outcome as a "dark night" for the party. There would have to be a "root and branch" reform of the party.

The change of leadership "in retrospect" did not help, but the Dublin TD saw himself playing a major part in the party's rejuvenation.