FIANNA Fail is strongly considering holding one of the three by-elections on its own early next year -- and has identified Ireland soccer legend Packie Bonner as a possible candidate, the Irish Independent has learned.
Senior sources are talking of Bonner as a candidate for Donegal South-West because he would "romp home". A party spokesman last night refused to comment.
Although Bonner would not speak directly to the Irish Independent last night, a spokeswoman for the FAI -- where he is technical director -- maintained he had not been approached and would not be running.
In a book to be published next week, Bonner talks of being asked by the party to run in the European elections last year -- and leaves the door open to stepping onto the political field.
"If I went into politics I wouldn't want to get caught up in the system," he says in 'Donegal's Sporting Heroes'.
"I'd have to have something to achieve along with a vision and a method.
"If I could satisfy myself that that could be done, then I'd look at the possibility in the future.
"But if it can't be done, and I haven't seen any evidence that it can, I won't make the step into politics."
Party strategists believe FF has a chance of winning in Donegal but have written off the other polls in Dublin South and Waterford, which have to be held by the end of April, as almost certain losses.
Landing Bonner would be an audacious coup and would give the battered party a major electoral boost.
Senior sources have said Taoiseach Brian Cowen may hold the election in Donegal early next year -- well in advance of the other two -- in the hope that a high-profile candidate will hold the seat vacated by Pat 'The Cope' Gallagher when he took up his seat in the European parliament.
Party bosses believe the impact of the expected losses in Waterford and Dublin South on the Government's stability could be decreased if they get a win in their "back pocket" beforehand.
"The thinking is that we're going to lose the other two," a party source said. "So if you get someone high-profile to run in Donegal, and pour everything into that, you could take the sting out of the losing the others."
But such a move would put FF on a collision course with the Green Party, who have said all the polls should be held on the same day -- along with the Dublin mayoral election and the children's referendum.
Mr Cowen sparked confusion on the by-elections in an interview last weekend when he appeared to suddenly differentiate between the three votes.
He then failed to clear up the doubts caused by the interview by declining to tell the Dail if all three would be held on the same day.
However, he did confirm that the Government still intended to hold all the by-elections in the spring.
The promise to hold the Donegal South-West by-election in the first quarter of next year also forms part of the Government's defence of a Sinn Fein legal challenge against the failure to hold the vote.
A spokesman for Environment Minister John Gormley last night maintained that all three by-elections should be held on the same day.
The Greens could also face a backlash from voters if they agree to hold the Donegal poll on its own -- a move which would be seen as benefiting Fianna Fail.
Mr Gallagher last night said he will not be returning from Europe to try and retake his Dail seat, which is also Tanaiste Mary Coughlan's constituency.