Monday 23 April 2018

By-election gets bitter as Labour attacks Taoiseach

Fiach Kelly Political Correspondent

Labour has launched a last-minute personalised attack on Taoiseach Enda Kenny in the Meath East by-election campaign as tensions mount between the coalition parties.

Damaging the chances of Fine Gael getting Labour transfers, the junior coalition partner is criticising Mr Kenny for being unwilling to change government policy.

Meath East by-election candidates Helen McEntee (Fine Gael), Darren O’Rourke (Sinn Fein), Thomas Byrne (Fianna Fail) and Eoin Holmes (Labour)
Meath East by-election candidates Helen McEntee (Fine Gael), Darren O’Rourke (Sinn Fein), Thomas Byrne (Fianna Fail) and Eoin Holmes (Labour)

In a final campaign leaflet going out to voters, Labour mocks Mr Kenny by picturing him with Bertie Ahern, Gerry Adams and Phil Hogan.

The personalised message from the leaflet claims nothing will change in Mr Kenny's Government if another Fine Gael TD is elected.

Today's by-election is viewed as a dead heat between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, with Labour facing the nightmare prospect of coming fourth behind Sinn Fein.

In a late desperate plea for votes, Labour is sending out mixed messages on crucial transfers which will decide who wins the seat.

Although Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore signalled the party's supporters should transfer to Fine Gael, the party on the ground is making no such recommendation.

Snubbing their coalition partners, the party's candidate Eoin Holmes and director of elections Dominic Hannigan say there is no vote transfer pact – even as Fine Gael claims it hopes the tradition of transfers between the parties continues today.

Labour's final leaflet to voters in today's by-election openly mocks Mr Kenny saying there will be no change in policy under Fine Gael.

It has a string of photographs portraying the Taoiseach with former Fianna Fail leader Bertie Ahern, Gerry Adams and Health Minister James Reilly, with Mr Kenny saying "Grand so – no change in Government" if either the Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein or Fine Gael candidates are elected.

But it also has another with Environment Minister Phil Hogan, in which Mr Kenny asks, what if Labour's Eoin Holmes wins?

"More power to Labour," Mr Hogan replies, to which Mr Kenny responds: "Drat!"

It comes after a week of heightened coalition tensions, and in a race that is seen as neck-and-neck between Fianna Fail's Thomas Byrne and Fine Gael's Helen McEntee, with Labour facing a possibly disastrous fourth place finish behind Sinn Fein.

Some in the party even privately speculate it could finish lower than fourth – behind an Independent candidate – although others are more bullish, and insist it will hold third.

Ms McEntee's director of elections, Meath West TD Damien English, acknowledged transfers would be crucial, and said he hoped the tradition of transfers between Fine Gael and Labour would continue.

But the attack on Fine Gael marks the last pitch in Labour's campaign, which has seen Mr Holmes rigidly stick to the message that the influence of the senior coalition partner in Government must be diluted.

"There is no transfer pact in place, what Eamon Gilmore was saying is that he would have given his number two to Helen McEntee," Labour director of elections Mr Hannigan, a sitting Meath East TD, said.

"We are an independent party. Eamon Gilmore doesn't live in Meath so he doesn't have a number one or a number two to give. We are not giving any instructions."

Mr English said he was "quietly confident" Fine Gael would win, but said "transfers will be crucial" in the by-election sparked by the tragic death of Ms McEntee's father, Shane.

"There isn't a transfer pact but there is a tradition in this county of the two parties transferring to each other and I'd hope that would continue," Mr English said.

"Transfers will be crucial. We're hoping to get Labour transfers, but we are picking others up, which is normal enough for a young candidate.

"I would say Helen is one or two points ahead and she has a good chance of winning. I would be quietly confident. I expect that she will win it, but politics is funny. It's between her and Thomas Byrne, he's quite close, but different things can happen on election day."

One local source tipped Labour to do better than is reflected in national polls, but said its candidate would still come in behind Sinn Fein's candidate Darren O'Rourke. Fine Gael has also dropped its final leaflet urging people to vote, but it made no mention of Labour.

Jobs Minister Richard Bruton said the by-election campaign would not have an effect on relations between Labour and Fine Gael.

"People campaign on what they need to campaign on," Mr Bruton said. "Clearly candidates are vying for the one position available and you would expect a robust debate.

"That has nothing got to do with the capacity of parties to operate in government, to deal with an extraordinary crisis that we have inherited."

Irish Independent

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