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Saturday 17 February 2018

FG bids to 'save face' in Mitchell meltdown

Blame game begins as insiders admit candidate is doomed

Fine Gael presidential candidate Gay Mitchell speaking to the media at Raphoe Mart in Donegal yesterday
Senator David Norris at the opening of his campaign headquarters on Duke Street in Dublin
Labour's Michael D Higgins campaigning yesterday in Killarney
Presidential candidate Sean Gallagher with children from the Glebe montessori school in Celbridge, Co Kildare, yesterday

Michael Brennan, Greg Harkin and Sam Smyth

FINE Gael will mount a desperate attempt to "save face" after party insiders accepted that Gay Mitchell's chances of becoming the next president are now doomed.

Mr Mitchell's campaign lay in tatters last night as a second opinion poll in two days showed the party's candidate trailing second-last out of the seven contenders in the race for the Aras.

Although many Fine Gael TDs are publicly putting on a brave face, there is a private acceptance that Mr Mitchell is now too far behind to catch up Labour's Michael D Higgins or Independent Sean Gallagher.

Now the poor performance is heightening divisions within the party -- despite director of elections Charlie Flanagan claiming that it was a "myth" that not all its TDs and senators were canvassing for Mr Mitchell.

And the internal blame game in the party has already begun, with complaints that a rebel rump of TDs backed the nomination of Gay Mitchell in order to "embarrass" Taoiseach Enda Kenny, instead of choosing the more electable Mairead McGuinness or Pat Cox.

One senior TD said last night that it was "a matter of saving face at this stage" by getting the "hard-core" Fine Gael voters to back Mr Mitchell.

"We have to limit the damage," he said.

According to party insiders, the devastating results in two successive opinion polls have negated the value of a rousing 20-minute speech given by Mr Kenny at the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting this week. He told members of the Oireachtas to "go into the parishes and get the Fine Gael vote out".

But a Fine Gael senator said the stirring speech would only have had an effect if the polls had put Mr Mitchell in contention for the Aras.

The latest Paddy Power/Red C poll shows Michael D Higgins at 25pc, followed by Sean Gallagher at 21pc and Martin McGuinness at 16pc. In contrast, David Norris is down to 14pc, while Mr Mitchell is floundering on 10pc. Independent Mary Davis is at 9pc and Dana Rosemary Scallon is on 5pc.

It is accepted as inevitable that Mr Kenny will be damaged politically if Mr Mitchell finishes behind Mr McGuinness, Mr Norris and Dana.

But several Fine Gael TDs and senators who spoke privately last night dismissed claims from former Fine Gael minister Gemma Hussey, who sent a Twitter message to remind people that Alan Dukes had lost the leadership after the party's disastrous 1990 presidential election campaign.

"Aras election disasters have seen off a FG leader before this, Enda will need to assert himself and regain national authority quickly," said one.

Their view is that it is widely known that Mr Mitchell was not Mr Kenny's first choice as candidate and that the blame will be spread much more widely for the party's failure to win the presidential race after a strong general election.

Mr Mitchell told supporters in Co Donegal yesterday they needed to "take back our vote from Labour" in order to succeed in his bid for the presidency. He insisted the "party machine" was behind him.

"This campaign has only just started and I think we will see the Fine Gael vote go up and on October 27, we will do very well," he said.

Mr McGuinness claimed yesterday that the poll showed that Mr Mitchell's attacks on his IRA past had backfired.

The Sinn Fein candidate retains his position in third place but his chances will be affected by poor transfer prospects from other candidates.

Mr Mitchell rejected the idea that his negative campaign against Mr McGuinness had backfired -- or that he didn't have the support of the party.


Both Junior Minister John Perry and Fine Gael Donegal North East TD Joe McHugh said the poll would be a "wake-up call" for the party.

But Fine Gael is facing a steep challenge -- some of its canvassers have come across voters willing to vote for its candidate in the Dublin West by-election but not Mr Mitchell in the presidential election.

But the Red C Poll contained positive findings for Independent Sean Gallagher. He has surged to second place and is attracting support from Fianna Fail supporters -- where he served on the national executive - and also from Fine Gael and Independent voters.

The poll also suggested that he stands to pick up transfers from fellow Independent Mary Davis if she is eliminated.

Mr Gallagher said yesterday that people were now aware of his varied background as a farmer, entrepreneur and community worker.

Mr Higgins, who was campaigning yesterday in Kerry, said he was happy with his showing at the top of the poll.

"My end of it is going very well but you can't take anything for granted.

"My message to my supporters is don't rest up for a single day," he said.

Mr Higgins also said he hoped that age wouldn't be a factor in the presidential campaign for voters.

"They will look at my experience -- 25 years in the Dail, nine years in the Seanad -- and know you wouldn't be elected mayor of Galway twice if you were ignoring local issues," he said.

Irish Independent

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