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FG braced for 'young gun' to enter battle

A THIRD candidate could enter the Fine Gael leadership battle, a key ally of Richard Bruton has said.

As the power struggle continued today, Olivia Mitchell admitted the party could be split further if a young gun decides to take on Bruton in a leadership contest.

Enda Kenny's grip on the beleaguered party has all but slipped away despite a series of late night meetings where he begged TDs and senators to remain loyal.

With less than 10 parliamentary members still to take sides, tomorrow's vote looks set to be a cliffhanger.

But informed sources have told the Herald Mr Kenny is losing support from the "middle-ground members" that he had expected to back him.

One senator said today: "I've been absolutely loyal to Enda, I backed him on his Seanad proposal and I backed him on George Lee, but what happened yesterday was game-changing."

As the battle got nastier, one of Kenny's backers hit out at the dissidents, declaring: "This is about Mercs."

Kerry TD Tom Sheehan said: "The grassroots are very disappointed that Enda Kenny was pushed into putting down this motion of confidence in himself."

However, one of the so-called "Green Isle Gang" who walked across the Leinster House plinth yesterday said that the Mercs claim is "very unfair" and "utterly wrong".

While admitting that "all sorts of things motivate people", Olivia Mitchell told the Herald today she "would rather sit on the back bench" than continue with the current regime.

"When I saw the poll last week, I was absolutely gutted, although I wasn't desperately surprised. The trend was there," she said.

"He [Kenny] is hugely popular in the party and hugely respected for what he did. In any normal times he would be Taoiseach and a good Taoiseach but these are extraordinary times."

Ms Mitchell said she is now confident that a leadership change will follow tomorrow's parliamentary party meeting.

"I'm optimistic, more so than I was yesterday. There was no plot. There was no preparation done, it was literally an evolving situation. I think as the day went on we were getting more and more people."

Asked about the possibility of others entering a leadership contest, she said: "I think it's possible, although I haven't heard any names. I hope it doesn't happen. The sooner this is all over, the better. I personally am backing Richard."

The Kenny and Bruton camps were desperately lobbying the final few undecided TDs and senators today with supporters of both claiming to have more than 30 members signed up. A simple majority of 36 is required to carry the vote but for now it is too close to call.

If Kenny loses the confidence vote tomorrow, it will leave the party with no leader, no deputy leader and no front bench.

Therefore most members have expressed a desire for a swift transition but others are looking at the possibility of a fresh split and a protracted leadership battle.