FF faces by-election battles in the capital
TAOISEACH Brian Cowen is facing a major electoral dilemma this year following the death yesterday of Independent TD Tony Gregory.
Michael Brennan Political Correspondent
On top of next June's local and European elections and the second referendum on Lisbon, his coalition will also have to fight two by-election battles in the capital.
The elections will be a huge public test of Mr Cowen's leadership and could determine the lifetime of his embattled government.
Fianna Fail is facing an uphill struggle to win the seat held by Mr Gregory in Dublin Central since 1982. Meanwhile, they face an even tougher contest to retain the seat held by the late Fianna Fail minister Seamus Brennan in Dublin South.
Last night, a spokesman for Mr Cowen said no decision had been made on a date for either by-election as tributes poured in from across the political spectrum for Mr Gregory.
The 61-year-old, who lost his year-long battle with cancer at St Francis Hospice, Raheny in Dublin yesterday morning, was described as a "legendary politician" by friends and opponents.
He most famously secured the IR£80m (€101m) 'Gregory deal' with former Taoiseach Charles Haughey in 1982, which secured jobs and houses in his constituency in exchange for his Dail support.
But he was also praised last night for fearlessly confronting drug dealers, going to jail on behalf of street traders and always staying true to his belief in social justice.
In his tribute, Mr Cowen said Mr Gregory had served his inner city community with great dedication and distinction for over a quarter of a century.
"He was a proud Dubliner, a great advocate for his community and a diligent public representative," he said.
He was joined in his tributes by President Mary McAleese, as well as Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny, Labour leader Eamon Gilmore and Green Party leader John Gormley. Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said they had been "always good friends" despite being political opponents in the constituency.
But friends of Mr Gregory commented that he would be looking down from heaven with a "weary smile" at this remark.
Mr Cowen is aware that the opposition are gearing up to win both by-elections in a further attempt to weaken his Government.
The early favourite to win Mr Gregory's seat in Dublin Central is Fine Gael's Senator Pascal Donohoe, who came close in the 2007 general election.
The party is also considering parachuting in a "celebrity candidate" into Dublin South, where the seat held by the late Seamus Brennan has now been vacant for six months.
But it is understood that Mr Brennan's son Shay is edging closer to accepting the nomination to run in the constituency, a boost for Fianna Fail.
If the party were to lose the seat, the Goverment's Dail majority would be cut from six to four.
Mr Cowen is already grappling with a severe economic crisis, a second Lisbon Treaty referendum, the recapitalisation of the banks, and warnings from the Green Party that their support cannot be taken for granted.
His party will have to select a candidate for Dublin Central at a time when its standing in the opinion polls with voters has sunk to a record low.
It could provide an opportunity for Fianna Fail councillor Mary Fitzpatrick, who was controversially overlooked by former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in favour of his other running mate Cyprian Brady, during the 2007 general election.
The by-election will also pose problems for Labour leader Eamon Gilmore, who is facing his first electoral test without an obvious candidate to choose from.
One of the party's most active councillors in Dublin Central is Emer Costello -- but she is the wife of the sitting Labour TD Joe Costello. Another Labour councillor, local school principal Aodhan O'Riordan, recently moved to the Dublin North Central constituency.
He is believed to be unlikely to reverse his decision, leaving Mr Gilmore with an established candidate in Dublin South (Labour Senator Alex White) but none in Dublin Central.
The tightly-knit constituency operation set up by the late Mr Gregory is also due to consider running a candidate to succeed him -- again there is no obvious successor in sight. Community activist Mick Rafferty, who served for four years in Mr Gregory's former Dublin City Council seat, said it was too early to make a decision.
Under electoral law, the Government can bring a resolution in the Dail to set the date for a by-election at a time of its own choosing.
The opposition expects that the by-elections in Dublin South and Dublin Central may be held on the same day in late summer or autumn -- to minimise the risk of the Government suffering a damaging defeat before the local and European elections in June.