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Beset by scandal

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Andrew Bushe

DUBLIN — After the weeks of sustained battering for the coalition, Bertie Ahern and Mary Harney will breathe a sigh of relief at the end of this week when the current Dail session ends and the house rises for the summer recess until Oct. 3.

The Fianna Fail-Progressive Democrats marriage has been an increasingly tense affair as sleaze, political cock-ups and self-inflicted damage have whittled away trust between the parties. They will be hoping to use the holiday break to regroup.

With the standing of both parties and leaders sinking in the opinion polls and the shock of the recent Tipperary South by-election result, neither wants a snap election.

But with the main opposition parties failing to capitalize on the government’s diminishing popularity, they would not relish an election either.

All the main establishment parties know that the principal beneficiaries of a general election now would be an assorted band of independent candidates and smaller parties like the Greens and Sinn Fein.

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In last week’s Tipperary South by-election, an independent left-wing candidate capitalized on apparent voter distrust of the scandal-plagued government. Seamus Healy, representing the Workers and Unemployed Action Group, took the seat on the third count without reaching the quota. He get almost 31 percent of the first preference vote and then finished 533 votes ahead of the Fine Gael candidate Tom Hayes. Fianna Fail’s vote plummeted by almost 15 percent on the 1997 general election result — almost exactly the same as the increase in Healy’s vote.

Since the Tipperary South result, there are now more Independent TDs in the Dail than at any time since 1961. A further fracturing of the main political blocs could make brokering a future coalition government a nightmare.

Though the Dail will have risen, the two sleaze probes will continue in session. Next month star witnesses, former Taoiseach Charles Haughey and ex-Foreign Minister Ray Burke, will be appearing at the Moriarty and Flood Tribunals.

Further damaging revelations are expected as both are questioned under oath about payments they received during their careers and the circumstances surrounding them.

Unless answers they give reflect seriously on members of the present Fianna Fail administration, Ahern and Harney are expected to remain wedded until the autumn.

The smart money is now betting on an October election when the coalition will have finalized the estimates for the December budget.

They can then head for the hustings with a promise of a new tax and social welfare package and hope the campaign will center on the economy instead of corruption, suspicious donations, cronyism and other sleaze factors.

Ahern will be hoping the collapse of the Fianna Fail vote in Tipperary is not a permanent seismic shift by their core following but a typical mid-term rap on the knuckles — that the traditionally loyal supporters will return to the fold when national issues are at stake.

Harney will use the summer to reorganize her battered party and coax an important electoral advisor, Attorney General Michael McDowell, back into the fold as a candidate next time out.

Faced with the problem of all small coalition partners — being lost in the shadow of a bigger party — she will also be keen to forge policy initiatives that will show the public clear blue ideological water between the PDs and Fianna Fail.

All this, however, is dependent on no new unexpected crisis fracturing the already brittle alliance.

When former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds saw his similarly fragile coalition with Labor collapse in 1994, he told the Dail the big issues were not the problem., but that is was the small things that trip you up.The Dail’s summer recess will give Fianna Fail’s Bertie Ahern and Mary Harney of the Progressive Democrats, whose parties have suffered an erosion of public support, a chance to regroup and prepare for what will likely be a fall election. . . . Photocall

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