Knives out in FG as Euro election map is redrawn
Veteran MEP's plan would keep McGuinness out of his territory
THE knives are out in Fine Gael over the strategy for the European elections, particularly in Taoiseach Enda Kenny's backyard.
Tensions are mounting within the party as a reduction in the country's number of MEPs from 12 to 11 will put pressure on Mr Kenny's party to retain its four seats.
The jockeying for position within Fine Gael is causing a headache for the Taoiseach, eight months out from polling day.
The new European constituency map, taking account of the reduction in seats, will be announced at the end of next month.
Fine Gael will finalise its proposals for the independent body drawing up the new constituencies this week.
Party MEP Jim Higgins, a long-time colleague of Mr Kenny, is fighting a rearguard action to stay on the ticket – and keep his seat.
Mr Higgins, the Fine Gael MEP for Ireland North-West, has proposed a bizarre redraw of the European elections map that would keep party colleague Mairead McGuinness out of his base.
However, the Fine Gael hierarchy want Mr Higgins to stand aside next year and be replaced on the ticket by party TD John O'Mahony.
"He wants to run, so it'll be hard to get him off the pitch," a senior party source said.
There are doubts in Mr Kenny's camp about the wisdom of running a TD in the European elections, as his departure from the Dail would prompt a by-election.
Mr Higgins's proposal for the redraw is at odds with the draft plans from Fine Gael headquarters, most of which push Ms McGuinness's stronghold in Louth-Meath into an enlarged Ireland North-West constituency.
The most likely option is the carving up of Leinster, with the top half going into Ireland North-West, made up of Connacht-Ulster, and the bottom half into Ireland South, made up of Munster.
But Mr Higgins's plan envisages Ms McGuinness moving south to chase votes as he is proposing a massive Munster-Leinster constituency that would spread from Dundalk to Dingle.
His plan, outlined in a submission to the independent Constituency Commission, is at odds with the proposals coming from Fine Gael head office.
Ms McGuinness's move into the Ireland North-West constituency has been the subject of speculation for months.
Experts say his proposal "doesn't make sense", and Fine Gael figures say Mr Higgins's proposal is "absolutely" aimed at keeping Ms McGuinness out of his constituency.
Fine Gael sources said the idea of putting Louth and Meath in with Munster was "mad".
The country's most noted expert in political geography, NUI Maynooth's Dr Adrian Kavanagh, said there were many options open, but dismissed Mr Higgins's plan.
"Mixing Louth and Kerry doesn't make much sense to me," he said.
There are four European constituencies of three seats each – Dublin, Ireland East (rest of Leinster), Ireland South (Munster) and Ireland North-West (Connacht, Ulster and parts of Munster and Leinster).
The final configuration of seats will result in the number of constituencies reduced to three – either one three-seater and two four-seaters or one five-seater and two three-seaters.
None of the options set out by the experts sees Louth and Meath being joined with Munster.
Ms McGuinness said she does not know what the outcome of the redraw will be.
"It's Leinster and Ireland East that will be sundered as a result of the loss of a seat. Parts could end up in with Connacht-Ulster, Munster or Dublin. And none of us know," she said.
In his submission, Mr Higgins said his proposal "takes account of the practical similarities of certain counties such as Louth, Meath, Kildare and Wicklow in the Dublin commuter belt".
He was unavailable for comment when contacted by the Irish Independent.
"Jim will run. And it's very foolish to try and stop a fellah who wants to run," a party source said.
Fine Gael HQ is interested in running Mr O'Mahony in his place because he is one of four party TDs in Mayo, Mr Kenny's base.
But the number of seats in Mayo is being reduced from four to five at the next general election, meaning Fine Gael is guaranteed to lose at least one seat.
Party strategists are examining ways of moving one of the TDs, with Mr O'Mahony being linked with a run for Europe or a switch to the Galway West constituency.
But there are doubts that running him in the European elections would be a good idea as it would lead to the prospect of Fine Gael losing two seats.
Mr O'Mahony is regarded as a friend of Mr Higgins and therefore unwilling to push him off the pitch.
The options regarded as being on the table for the Constituency Commission are:
* 4-4-3. Ireland North, comprising Connacht, Ulster and north Leinster with four seats; Ireland South, comprising Munster and south Leinster, with four seats; Dublin with three seats.
* 5-3-3. Commuter Belt, comprising Dublin and the counties along the east coast with five seats; Ireland North comprising Connacht, Ulster and the midlands counties of Leinster with three seats; Ireland South comprising Munster and some of Leinster with three seats.
* Alternative 5-3-3. Ireland South comprising Munster and south Leinster with five seats; Ireland North comprising Connacht, Ulster and north Leinster with three seats; Dublin with three seats.
By Fionnan Sheahan Political Editor