Saturday 24 February 2018

Fine Gael is largest party but may well have biggest casualties

Fine Gael Senator Deirdre Clune
Fine Gael Senator Deirdre Clune
Simon Harris: candidate. Photo: Tom Burke
Niall O'Connor

Niall O'Connor

FINE Gael candidates are set for a dogfight among themselves to secure a place in the European Parliament.

The party must brace itself for the real prospect of at least one high-profile casualty outside of the capital.

The 'family of war' days that caused deep internal divisions may be nothing more than a distant memory for those wearing the blue shirt in this election campaign.

But the knives will now be quickly drawn as some of Ireland's most experienced MEPs realise that the threat to their seats is from inside family circles.

Fine Gael is set to lose at least one sitting MEP and will be fighting for the final seat in both constituencies, according to today's Irish Independent/Milward Brown opinion poll.

A mouthwatering battle is on the cards in Midlands-North-West as serving MEPs Mairead McGuinness and Jim Higgins find themselves sitting on 11pc support each.

Party headquarters will be left wondering whether they applied the right strategy by opting against imposing geographic boundaries in a bid to get both of their players across the line.

The expectation that Ms McGuinness will outperform her running mate in the area of first preferences appears to have been misguided, as Mr Higgins is now neck-and-neck with the Fine Gael 'golden girl'.

However, on transfers Ms McGuinness is polling strong on 18pc – compared with just 10pc recorded by Mr Higgins.

It appears to be a case of deja vu for Fine Gael and Ms McGuinness, who a decade ago found herself struggling to fend off another party colleague, former MEP Avril Doyle.

The friction between the pair was palpable but to Fine Gael's relief, both female candidates got across the line in what was then spun as a political masterstroke.

Such a prospect will not be repeated next month.

Fine Gael has a casualty on its hands in Midlands-North-West – but neither candidate is willing to take the bullet.

There is also a three-way grudge match in Ireland South.

Today's poll findings will prove alarming for Fine Gael MEP Sean Kelly, who may pick up just a third of the vote set to be secured by his Fianna Fail rival Brian Crowley.

Mr Kelly, a former president of the GAA, faces being pipped by an underdog in Senator Deirdre Clune. Both are sitting on 12pc and, incredibly, are recording identical figures in transfers.

Ms Clune could be the first Fine Gael candidate to cross the line and is far out-performing her other running mate, Simon Harris.

Tensions between the pair are rife after Mr Harris released a statement criticising what he described as attempts to "buy the election".

His remarks were seen as being clearly pointed at Ms Clune, who has managed to build up a well-financed campaign.

Talk within the party about Harris's chances appear to be without foundation as he finds himself in fifth position and is badly trailing both Ms Clune and Mr Kelly on transfers.

With a good vote management strategy, Fine Gael can take two out of four seats in Ireland South.

But the extraordinary support for Fianna Fail's Brian Crowley means his relatively unknown running mate, Kieran Hartley, will benefit from a significant surplus.

Irish Independent

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