More embarrassment for Fine Gael

The candidature of Mairead McGuinness in Louth and, more particularly, a secret lavish fund-raising function in Dublin's Four Seasons Hotel are likely to cause further embarrassment to Fine Gael and Enda Kenny. By Frank Connolly and Vincent Browne


/images/village/Politicians/mmcguinness.jpgMairéad McGuiness (pictured) could be Fine's Gael's next embarrassment or Fine Gael's next leader. Her decision to contest a nomination for the Louth constituency in the next election poses two problems for the party.

/images/village/Politicians/fergus-o%5C%27dowd.jpg Already there are two candidates chosen: the outgoing TD, Fergus O'Dowd (pictured) and a Dundalk councilor, Joe D'Arcy. If Fine Gael runs three candidates here, it has no chance of taking a second seat. Because of geographical factors, if Mairéad McGuinness is to be elected to the Dáil (her base is Ardee) the loser is likely to be Fergus O'Dowd, one of the few Fine Gael TDs to impress in the outdoing Dáil. O'Dowd is based near Drogheda, which means he and McGuinness will be contending for votes in this growing commuter belt.

Mairead McGuinness has an impressive record. She was the first woman to qualify from UCD's faculty of agriculture. She worked as a researcher on the Late Late Show, was a reporter for the Irish Farmer's Journal, edited the Irish Independent's farming supplement, was an RTÉ presenter and in early-2004 stated she was seeking a Fine Gael nomination for the Leinster constituency for the European Parliament elections.

This caused consternation to the sitting Fine Gael MEP, Avril Doyle, who, along with almost everyone else, believed Fine Gael had a chance of taking only one seat in the three-seat constituency. To the surprise of both candidates, they were both elected.

Louth is a four-seat constituency. At present Fianna Fáil has two seats with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern, and backbench TD Seamus Kirk. Fergus O'Dowd holds a seat for Fine Gael and Arthur Morgan was elected on the last count in 2002 for Sinn Féin.

Although Arthur Morgan was well short of a quota on the first count (7,121 votes), he came second to Dermot Ahern on first preferences and was assured of election.  He seems very likely to retain his seat again in 2007. Dermot Ahern is certain of being elected again and unless the Fianna Fáil vote in the constituency collapses, Fianna Fáil is assured of a second seat.

Fine Gael barely got one quota in 2002, which makes it very implausible that it could take a second seat here now.

There is a slight chance that with Mairéad McGuiness and Fergus O'Dowd splitting the Fine Gael vote in the south of the constituency, it could let in the Dundalk candidate, Joe D'Arcy.

If elected to the Dáil and if Fine Gael fail to return to office, then Mairéad McGuinness could well be a contender for the party leadership. Not because of her political prowess, but because of an absence of other credible contenders, aside from Richard Bruton.

But the decision of Enda Kenny to back Mairead McGuinness's nomination is symptomatic of a potentially fatal weakness in his leadership style.

To maximise its number of seats in the next election, Fine Gael  must curtail the number of candidates it runs in all constituencies. This is because of the stark electoral reality that in most constituencies and in most elections, the candidates in the “frame” in the first count get elected – by the “frame” is meant the first five candidates in a five-seat constituency, the first four in a four-seat constituency and the first three in a three-seat constituency. Transfers play only a subsidiary role.

This means that if a party puts up three candidates in a four-seat constituency with a realistic prospect of taking just two seats, it is almost certain to win just one seat. This is because at least two of the candidatures will fail to be in the “frame” on the first count because the party vote is fragmented.

And yet in constituency after constituency Fine Gael is putting forward too may candidates – for instance in Dun Laoghaire it is running three candidates.

Allowing a third candidate into Louth makes it virtually certain Fine Gael will fail to take a second seat – a very implausible objective anyway. The likely result is that Fergus O'Dowd will lose his seat, and either Mairéad McGuinness or Joe D'Arcy will get through.

O'Dowd led the way on the nursing homes scandal. He was the first – before Prime Time – to break the story. He also did much of the running on the ‘Bertiegate' issue during the summer.

As with two other TDs who feel under pressure because of candidates being “sprung” on them, Damien English and John Deasy, Fergus O'Dowd is unlikely to be enamoured by the Fine Gael leader and further difficulties for the party are likely to emerge from his alienation.

Meanwhile, there may be further embarrassment for the party by the revelation concerning a major fundraising function of “fat-cats” in the Four Seasons Hotel in Ballsbridge. The Four Seasons function was organised by a group which included a barrister, Colm Allen. The contribution demanded of all guests to the function was €5,000 per head. When asked by Village, about this function, the Fine Gael press office refused to confirm even that the function had taken place.

Colm Allen represented Tom and Michael Bailey, the property developers, at the Planning Tribunal and also, for a while, Frank Dunlop. He is himself wealthy with a house in Ailesbury Rd and, apparently, he has wealthy social contacts.

The secrecy surrounding the Four Seasons function and the price per head raises questions about the independence of Fine Gael from powerful and wealthy vested interests. Questions that are likely to feature during the course of the election campaign.