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Parties scramble for middle ground to stem Sinn Féin tide

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael caught off guard by rise in support for SF

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Mary Lou McDonald may debate with Micheal Martin and Leo Varadkar

Mary Lou McDonald may debate with Micheal Martin and Leo Varadkar

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Mary Lou McDonald may debate with Micheal Martin and Leo Varadkar

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are locked in an election battle to hold the centre ground as Sinn Féin's support grows.

Both parties have been caught off guard by the shock rise in support for Sinn Féin as the General Election campaign enters its final week.

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe insisted he was "not giving up or giving in on the centre" but said he would have to "fight" to ensure it holds.

"We have to continue to change the political centre to make sure it works for more people," he told the Irish Independent.

Meanwhile, senior figures in Fine Gael are warning the party needs to significantly change its strategy to focus on Sinn Féin's policies rather than dismissing it as not being a normal party.

However, there are divided opinions in the party as other senior ministers believe attacking Sinn Féin is driving voters towards Fianna Fáil.

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Mum’s the word: 94-year-old Sheila Canney casts her vote in Galway East, watched by her son, Seán Canney TD. Photo: Ray Ryan

Mum’s the word: 94-year-old Sheila Canney casts her vote in Galway East, watched by her son, Seán Canney TD. Photo: Ray Ryan

"A number of people have told the Taoiseach every time you take on the Shinners it plays into Martin's hands," a senior Fine Gael source said.

Fianna Fáil will tell voters that supporting them is the only way to keep Sinn Féin out of power.

"We will tell voters that if they vote for Mary Lou, they could be putting Marxists like Ruth Coppinger and Richard Boyd Barrett in government," a senior party source said.

Mary Lou McDonald said a 'Business Post'/Red C opinion poll which had her party neck and neck with Fianna Fáil showed the "energy and momentum for Sinn Féin and for change".

"The best possible outcome from this election is a government without Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael," she said at a campaign event yesterday.

"The worst outcome for us is a government of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael working together."

Sinn Féin has officially requested that RTÉ include Ms McDonald in the final live televised debate of the campaign, which takes place tomorrow night. RTÉ's election coverage steering committee will meet this morning to consider the request.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin yesterday said they had no objection to Ms McDonald being included in the debate.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar intends to continue leading Fine Gael from the opposition benches if voted out of office next weekend. Mr Varadkar’s party are facing an uphill battle to retain power after the latest opinion polls suggested Fine Gael are on course for one of their worst election results in history.

Labour has also written to RTÉ insisting the debate should include all party leaders.

While there are calls within Fine Gael to target Sinn Féin, the party's hierarchy has decided their focus should remain on Fianna Fáil.

"There's no votes for us in going after Sinn Féin as we are just sending voters back to Fianna Fáil," said a source.

Fine Gael campaign sources yesterday said they believe Mr Martin was beginning to "unravel" after his interview with Brian Dobson on RTÉ last Friday.

The party intends to target Mr Martin over his staff wrongly signing an election pledge on rent freezes and also highlighting typos in Fianna Fáil's election manifesto.

A Fine Gael source also said their research found viewers felt Mr Martin was "overly aggressive" and "snippy" in the Virgin Media debate last week.

Health Minister Simon Harris warned "not all change is good" and pointed to the vote on Brexit in Britain and the election of US President Donald Trump. "FF/SF is not change for the better. It's a real step backwards," he added.

Meanwhile, Mr Martin sparked anger in Fine Gael when he claimed the party could not "feel for working class people" because of their "privileged background".

"Fine Gael have a huge sense of entitlement and they believe that they have a divine right to rule," he told the 'Sunday Independent'.

Mr Harris accused Mr Martin of attempting to "sow division" while Fine Gael TD Noel Rock said he was raised by a single mother in Ballymun in Dublin.

The Taoiseach said it was "really unfortunate" that Mr Martin, was seeking to "inject class politics into Irish politics". He said he was "sorry that Fianna Fáil are trying to pit the working class against the middle class".

However, Mr Varadkar also criticised the "backwoodsmen in Fianna Fáil" who he said would "slow down social progress".

"If we have a Fianna Fáil-led government, I have no doubt that the social progress we have seen in recent years will not continue," he added.

Separately, Fianna Fáil finance spokesman Michael McGrath said his was the only party that "can lead an alternative government to Fine Gael".

Speaking on Newstalk, Mr McGrath said people "want a complete change of government and I think they don't want Fine Gael to have an influence over government".

"Our preferences is to build an alliance, following the election, that does not involve Fine Gael in any shape or form."

Irish Independent


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