Fine Gael sets sights on 60 seats in bid to stay in power
Fine Gael is targeting to win 30pc of the vote and 60 seats at the next General Election - a result which would see the party lose nine of its current TDs.
Senior party figures and strategists have confirmed to the Irish Independent that there is a realisation that the party will suffer a loss of seats, but it is eager to minimise the impact.
The expectation of a 30pc vote will be key in how the party approaches its selection of candidates in constituencies, a process that has already begun and one which Taoiseach Enda Kenny wants completed by October.
While it is preparing itself for the losses, garnering 60 seats at the election would still place Fine Gael in the driving seat to form the next government.
It is hoped the continued improving economy will see the party, along with the Labour Party, receive 40pc of the vote, which would be enough for them to get a seat majority in the Dáil, through effective vote management.
"The ambition is for 30pc, we have to get 30pc. If Labour can get 10pc of the vote, that could see them come back with 20 or so seats - and we are there or thereabouts," said one senior party figure.
With the number of seats in the next Dáil reduced from 166 to 158, 80 seats are required to have a majority.
Should the two Coalition parties fail to reach that 80-seat target, several Fine Gael party sources have also spoken of a "new Gregory Deal" with some sympathetic independents.
One minister said: "Conventions are happening now so, yeah, that's right. Being at 30pc going into the election would put us on 60 to 62, 63 seats, so, yeah, that is the thinking."
"Thirty per cent and it is game on. That makes us the lead party in government. So then you are talking Fine Gael, Labour and three or four independents, a possible 'Gregory deal' as we have had before."
With the commencement of selection conventions, party strategists are keen to avoid the mistake of last year's elections, when they "overestimated" their support level and as a result they were unable to maximise the party's vote.
On foot of considerable redrawing of constituency boundaries, a reduced number of seats and the introduction of 30pc gender quotas, the party is facing difficult decisions in terms of candidate selection in several key constituencies.
This includes Mr Kenny's home constituency of Mayo, where it holds four of the five seats.
This has fuelled speculation that TD John O'Mahony could move into Galway West for the general election after the loss of a swathe of his area in boundary revisions.
In Sligo, the party is also facing a difficult choice between former junior minister John Perry and Tony McLoughlin, as it is felt that both are unlikely to be re-elected.
There is a similar dilemma in Roscommon, where TD Frank Feighan is facing competition from Maura Hopkins, who stood for the party in the recent by-election.
Party figures concede there will have to be a considerable amount of "managing expectations" of candidates.
While Fine Gael's election planning committee has been told there would be no cull of sitting TDs, there is a growing sense that the combination of the factors would force some incumbents "off the pitch".
"More so than in 2011, we will need our candidates to really buy in to the party strategy, which could be problematic. But there are many difficult decisions to be made," said one member of the election committee.
Fine Gael returned in 2011 with 76 seats, but has seen its number fall to 68 following the expulsions of TDs Denis Naughten, Lucinda Creighton, Terence Flanagan, Billy Timmins and Peter Mathews.
They also have since lost the by-election after Brian Hayes became an MEP, and the Carlow Kilkenny by-election to replace former Environment Minister Phil Hogan, now EU Agriculture Commissioner, will take place next month.
Ceann Comhairle Seán Barrett is excluded from the figure of 68, as speaker of the Dáil.
Enda Kenny has also told his party to be "very mindful" to ensure good relations with Labour between now and the election.
"Our biggest offer is stability. That means playing nice with Labour, especially around the Budget," said one minister.