Race to succeed Noonan will begin this week


NEWS: The succession race for the Fine Gael leadership, following the resignation of Mr Michael Noonan, will get under way later this week at a meeting of the much-reduced parliamentary party.

However, Fine Gael's grassroots are unlikely to be given any role in selecting Mr Noonan's successor even though ardfheis delegates demanded such a change in February.

So far, the race is without a declared candidate. However, Dublin North-Central TD Mr Richard Bruton, Mayo TD Mr Enda Kenny, Longford/Roscommon's Mr Denis Naughten and, possibly, the former party leader, Mr John Bruton, could yet stand.

Mr Richard Bruton and Dublin South's Ms Olivia Mitchell yesterday became the latest Fine Gael figures to call on the party to "take its time" before choosing a replacement.

Fine Gael had followed "will o' the wisp" policies which had damaged its credibility with voters and it had failed to take clear policy stands, Mr Bruton added.

Despite the calls for reflection, leading sources acknowledge that a leader must be in place by the middle of June, which means that he/she will be partly picked by the current crop of senators rather than by those elected in late July.

Opinion has yet to solidify on the chances of the potential candidates.

"We are bruised and sore. Some people have been left with mortgages, babies and no jobs. The leadership is for another day," said Deputy Mitchell.

On Saturday, former Taoiseach, Mr John Bruton, raised speculation that he might be intent on returning to the head of the party in a series of outspoken television and radio appearances.

Rejecting such suggestions, he said: "I want Fine Gael to succeed. It is really important that you understand this. There is a tendency to over-personalise everything and reduce it to personalities."

Last night, sources close to Mr Bruton insisted that he genuinely does not want the position - from which he resigned in January 2001 when the parliamentary party voted no confidence in his leadership.

The chairman of the Fine Gael parliamentary party, Mr Padraic McCormack, said that he would call a meeting of the depleted ranks for later this week, assuming that all the results are finalised by then.

Asked what set of rules would be used, Mr McCormack replied: "We will use whatever rules are in place at the time it takes place. But we are not in a rush to do things. There is no panic."

He urged potential candidates to hold their fire until after the parliamentary party had a chance to meet and begin its review of the disastrous election result.

"I don't think that any candidacy will emerge until that is out of the way," said Mr McCormack, who retained his seat in Galway West yesterday following a lengthy count.

However, other senior figures in the party were privately dismissive of suggestions that they should wait until a decision was taken on whether ordinary members would be able to influence the election of a new leader.

"They won't. It will be over by then," said one.

Under the proposal accepted by the ardfheis, party leaders would have to be re-elected every two years by an electoral college made up of TDs and constituency representatives.

TDs and senators would have a 50 per cent say in the outcome while the voting strength of constituency executives would add up to a further 30 per cent. The ardfheis did not specify who would hold the remaining 20 per cent.

Under Fine Gael rules, the constitutional change cannot be made until it is first ratified by a postal ballot of all branches. Each branch will have five votes. Ballot papers are expected to be issued to Fine Gael branches this week.