Wednesday 22 November 2017

FG fears 'stars' running mates could lose out

POLL-TOPPER: Popularity of Mairead McGuinness could cost the party seats
POLL-TOPPER: Popularity of Mairead McGuinness could cost the party seats

FIONNAN SHEAHAN Group Political Editor

Fine Gael is worried the strength of Mairead McGuinness and Sean Kelly will actually cost the party seats in the forthcoming European elections.

Ms McGuinness and Mr Kelly are both viewed as the favourites to top the poll in the Ireland Midland-North-West and Ireland South constituencies respectively.

But the party is targeting two seats in each constituency and is concerned their weaker running mates will suffer from their popularity.

Fine Gael strategists are trying to develop a strategy to "contain" Ms McGuinness and "control" Mr Kelly.

The party currently has four MEPs and is targeting five seats in the three newly redrawn constituencies.

But the imbalance on the ticket threatens to cost the party seats.

Fine Gael's party hierarchy wanted sitting MEP Jim Higgins to stand aside and allow Mayo TD John O'Mahony to run.

Mr Higgins has resisted the attempts to push him off the pitch and the party now accepts he can't be prevented from running.

But it is understood he will be shown polling figures before the party's selection convention to set out the enormity of the challenge facing him.

Preliminary party polling shows Ms McGuinness handily taking the first seat, followed by Fianna Fail MEP Pat 'the Cope' Gallagher and Sinn Fein's Matt Carthy.

Independent MEP Marian Harkin and Mr Higgins are then left fighting it out for the last seat.

"We have come to accept it will be Jim. The question for the party is do we let Mairead run all over the place and get Jim in on the surplus or do we do a constituency divide. We haven't decided one way or another yet," a senior party source told the Sunday Independent.

A potential divide would be to pen Ms McGuinness into the seven counties in Leinster and give Mr Higgins the eight counties of Connaught and Ulster.

But such a strategy would be risky as Ms McGuinness is viewed as a formidable vote-getter right across the country.

In Ireland South, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are expected to win a seat each, with the remaining two seats up for grabs across the board.

Mr Kelly is currently canvassing heavily on the east coast, away from his base in Kerry. His background as a former GAA president gives him an immediate profile.

The party is lining up former IFA President John Bryan, whose term of office ended last week, and Senator Deirdre Clune as his running mates.

"To control Sean Kelly, we may need another candidate in Cork. There's 100,000 votes in Cork," a party source said.

The strategy being examined is to carve up the constituency for the final three weeks of the campaign, restricting Mr Kelly to Kerry, Limerick and Clare, Senator Clune would have Cork to herself and Mr Bryan would get Kilkenny, Carlow, Wicklow and Wexford.

Tipperary and Waterford would be up for grabs.

Junior Finance Minister Brian Hayes is poised to be announced in the next month as the Fine Gael candidate in Dublin and is also expected to easily be elected.

The party usually strikes a deal with candidates about funding European election campaigns.

But Fine Gael will put up the bulk of the funding for Mr Hayes from its war chest.

"We come to an arrangement with them. It depends on the individual circumstances. For Brian, it's the party (that) will be asking him to go," a party source said.

Fine Gael is less keen on running a second candidate as nobody of calibre has emerged.

"You only run someone if they will increase your first preference vote or strategically place someone for the next general election. Running candidates is an expensive exercise," the source said.

Irish Independent

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