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John Drennan: The people want Norris as our next President

THE people want David Norris to be our next President -- but the mainstream political parties appear determined to force them to accept something completely different.

The Sunday Independent/Quantum Research opinion poll on the presidential race, which show Norris, with 30 per cent, securing more than twice the support of his closest rivals -- Pat Cox and Fergus Finlay both have 13 per cent -- poses a serious dilemma for the political establishment and the office of the Presidency.

However, the poll was taken before Avril Doyle announced that she was to join the race.

The high-profile Independent TD Finian McGrath, who has been strongly supportive of the Norris campaign, told this newspaper he was seriously concerned that "the absence from the field of the most popular candidate amongst the public would seriously tarnish the credibility of the highest constitutional office in the land.

"My position at the moment is that the winner of a campaign that does not include Mr Norris would have a flawed mandate," he said.

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Sinn Fein may be prepared to offer the established parties and Mr Norris a lifeline. He has the support of a number of Independent TDs, such as Finian McGrath, Maureen O'Sullivan and Catherine Murphy, but may just be short of the 20 signatures that are required.

However, if Sinn Fein's TDs and senators back his candidacy, that would tip him over the threshold of Oireachtas support needed to secure a nomination.

It is unlikely that SF will back a candidate officially but senior figures in the party concede that "the logic of the decision on councillors (a free vote) suggests TDs and senators will be free to back any candidate they choose."

Sinn Fein sources said there were no plans to campaign for Norris as Labour did for Mary Robinson.

Meanwhile, Fine Gael has its own troubles. When it comes to their own candidates, both FG and Labour appear determined to snub the wishes of the electorate.

The lead that Pat Cox holds over Gay Mitchell on 11 per cent and Mairead McGuinness (nine per cent) is slender and the many cold comments of respondents to the poll about what is perceived as Cox's opportunistic streak indicate that he could be as transfer-repellent as Sinn Fein.

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However, Cox has more popular support than the two candidates who are believed to be the preferred choice of the establishment.

Within Labour, supporters of Michael D Higgins are hoping that the oldest candidate in the race will be the first in the field after the party decides on its choice today.

So far the race has been described as being "incredibly amicable" but one senior party figure noted that: "There could yet be blood on the dance floor today."

Up to the middle of last week, the Higgins supporters were suggesting that when it came to today's meeting: "We can dispense with the speechifying and go to the votes."

But although the Higgins camp claimed: "Fergus has peaked twice now and it's still not been enough," observers are predicting a close contest.

This is likely to be intensified by today's poll, which indicates that Finlay is marginally ahead of Michael D.

Supporters of the Finlay kitchen cabinet, which includes new younger TDs such as Ged Nash, Aodhan O'Riordan, Arthur Spring and Dominic Hannigan, claim that "both sides have about 20 votes".

Ironically Kathleen O'Meara, who was an also-ran in the poll and is the sole Labour candidate not to have received a declaration of support from a single TD or senator, could yet be the king-maker.

Within Fine Gael, hostility is hardening towards Pat Cox, despite his lead in the opinion polls.

Cox may be seen as the leadership candidate but an eclectic mix of young urban TDs -- both pro- and anti-Enda Kenny -- and conservative rural TDs have protested strongly against the imposition of the voluble Europhile.

Meanwhile, former Fine Gael MEP Avril Doyle is to seek the party's nomination. By throwing her hat in the ring, she will inevitably reignite claims of a bitter feud between herself and Mairead McGuinness, which first surfaced in the 2004 European elections.

However, yesterday party supporters insisted that the row was "media-driven", that her candidacy had nothing to do with Mairead McGuinness and they pointed out that Ms Doyle had been a candidate for the Presidency in 1997.

They also claimed that Ms Doyle had "significant support" in the parliamentary party and was seen as someone who could garner both urban and rural support.

However, recalling the uniquely fractious battle between Doyle and McGuinness in the Leinster EU elections, one FG source said: "The only reason Avril will enter this race will be to ensure that Mairead doesn't run."

Two other candidates who are likely to be considering their positions are the Dragons' Den star Sean Gallagher and Mary Davis, both of whom have polled disappointingly.

Within Fianna Fail, support for any participation, even by proxy, is likely to have been even further diminished by today's results.