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Martin's poll push hit as chaos sweeps FF

FIANNA FAIL leader Micheal Martin's last-ditch drive to stem seat losses in the election was dealt a severe blow last night with the shock departure of well-known party figures.

His efforts to stamp his authority on Fianna Fail were thrown into disarray following major setbacks in a number of key constituencies.

And there are still question marks over the fate of a number of senior cabinet figures.

Fianna Fail was last night hit by the retirement of high-profile Donegal North-East TD Niall Blaney, who unexpectedly pulled out of the election race. He is the 18th Fianna Fail deputy to quit before this election.

His decision to stand down for "personal reasons" has stunned the party. The selection convention in Letterkenny was left in disarray when a statement from Mr Blaney was read out to the meeting. His brother, Cllr Liam Blaney, may be added to the ticket.

But there is also a threat of a split in the organisation again -- just five years after the Blaneys came back into the Fianna Fail fold 35 years after the arms crisis divide.

Such is the level of uncertainty surrounding the party that Tanaiste Mary Coughlan's spokesman was forced to deny strong rumours that she too was planning to withdraw.

The spokesman said: "She is preparing her campaign as we speak."

And in Roscommon-South Leitrim, Rachel Doherty, daughter of the late justice minister Sean Doherty, withdrew her name as a potential candidate.

The setbacks come as Mr Martin conducts a final sweep of Fianna Fail's candidate line-up before the election officially gets under way tomorrow -- but he faces several problems.

And Taoiseach Brian Cowen was last night widely expected to confirm his retirement in the Dail tomorrow.

Senior Fianna Fail figures in his Laois-Offaly constituency are meeting tonight in Tullamore ahead of the selection convention tomorrow night.

And there are doubts if Mr Cowen's running mate John Molony will seek re-election.

Despite a slight improvement in the party's polling fortunes, Fianna Fail's strategy is to avoid splitting the vote too much and placing further seats in danger.

But both Tourism Minister Mary Hanafin and Children's Minister Barry Andrews are digging in and refusing to switch constituencies in Dunlaoighre-Rathdown.

The party leader managed to convince long-time Cork city colleague, Noel O'Flynn, to stand down to ensure the party won one seat in his constituency. But Mr Blaney's departure was not in Mr Martin's plans.

He had insisted on two candidates running in Donegal North-East, but that decision is not believed to have precipitated Mr Blaney's departure.

The general election is still tipped to be on February 25, although Mr Cowen could opt for March 2 to give his floundering party extra time.


Ms Hanafin, had her campaign in Dun Laoghaire launched by businessman Bill Cullen yesterday, despite continuing pressure on her to switch to Dublin South. "I'm hired," she joked in reference to Mr Cullen's catch-cry from 'The Apprentice' TV show.

Fianna Fail wants the Tourism Minister or Children's Minister Barry Andrews to move to the neighbouring constituency. The party has little hope of winning two seats in Dun Laoghaire and has a vacancy on the ticket in Dublin South.

But Ms Hanafin said she was definitely running in Dun Laoghaire.

"It's not that I'm not willing to do something for the party. I have nothing to bring to Dublin South," she said.

Her ministerial colleague, Barry Andrews, also said he was "100pc committed" to remaining in the constituency.

Mr Martin has taken a close look at the party line-up in a number of constituencies.

In particular, Mr Martin has looked at places where Fianna Fail has two sitting TDs and might be in danger of losing both seats by splitting the vote.

Unlike Cork North-Central, he ultimately decided on no changes in Kildare North, Kildare South and Limerick.

He is specifically examining the vast majority of the Dublin city and county constituencies.

Irish Independent