'Parachute man' looks to be FG's favourite for Aras
But the party is still keeping its options open in the contest for its golden nomination, writes Eamon Delaney
The ongoing presidential contest is still very much dominated by the question of who Fine Gael will pick and, although the choice of four candidates is still an embarrassment of riches, it is also in danger of bringing paralysis to the party and utter confusion as to who can bring home the Aras bacon for the Blueshirts. And for the first time in their long and chequered history.
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The rank and file would love a signal from the all-wise leadership of the party as to who to plump for, but this isn't going to happen. Enda Kenny has repeatedly said that there should be a fair and open contest for the party's golden nomination -- and why not, given how the wide choice of possibilities has milked all the publicity and attention and shown just how much the party now dominates the political landscape. It has also galvanised the party grassroots and given them the prospect of another bracing political outing.
However, although the leadership hasn't given a clear signal, it is now fairly obvious that their choice is, or certainly was, the parachute man Pat Cox. There is no way a wily veteran like Cox would have become involved unless he got this signal. But the leadership have played a superb game and kept all their options open, with the field now featuring a string of different FG prototypes, with the country head girl, Mairead McGuinness, straight-talking Dub Gay Mitchell, horsey Avril Doyle and new boy Cox. The arrival of Cox may have upset some of the party faithful, but he is a spiritual FGer and a useful asset.
Doubts about his Europhile background will subside. After all, he's hardly responsible for the volte face by the French and Germans about European unity. And better to have a man who knows the ropes out there. A 'gamekeeper turned poacher', so to speak.
But the bottom line for the leadership, and for the party in general, is that they want a winner. So it doesn't matter how cool or arrogant Cox might be at times -- if he brings FG to the Aras, then that's all that matters. But the party doesn't know yet if he has that winning quality. It is waiting for him to catch fire, as well he might with a campaign under way. Meanwhile, out of such uncertainty but also fairness, the party is entertaining the prospect of one of the other candidates.
Most of the parliamentary party continue to hold their counsel, which can hardly please the candidates.
So, if it's not Cox for the FG nomination, the polls say it's Mairead McGuinness. She is a popular party personality and could easily win it, if the grassroots got behind her. Her triumph in the European elections was a major fillip for FG in 2004, and for Kenny personally, and the qualities she then brought to revitalise a still wounded party could stand to her in a presidential contest.
She is hard-working, determined, a big vote-getter, and has a thorough grounding in the new rural modern Ireland. So the party has quite a choice.
As for the others, it is hard to see them picking up steam. Gay Mitchell has also been a big vote-getter, but that was in Dublin. And though he would be my pick, his 'Dubness' seems to be a deterrent, as does his direct personality. At least that is the conventional wisdom. It makes the party pollsters nervous. They want a national emollient.
And as for the patrician Avril Doyle, how can you take seriously a candidate whose main claim to fame is that she also went for the FG presidential nomination in 1997? And seems to have not done a whole lot since.
So the realistic FG call is between Cox and McGuinness, and we are focusing on FG here because the contest is FG's to lose. Not that it will be a pushover, by any means.
Labour's Michael D Higgins could blossom as the genial, white-haired seer that the confused punters warm to, and Dragons' Den star Sean Gallagher will challenge as a plucky independent. However, if anything has been proved by the recent jostlings, it is the near impossibility of an independent getting a proper shot.
Norris has slowly imploded, and Niall O'Dowd has withdrawn, rightly claiming that even if he got a nomination he would need a king's ransom just to campaign. His reckoning was about €700,000. So, even if nominated, Sean Gallagher and Mary Davis would need deep pockets to fight the party system. Not even FF can afford that sort of money now. But then, that particular brand remains so toxic that even if FF put up Nelson Mandela, it would still be run out of town.