By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — Following the resignation of Fine Gael leader John Bruton after he failed to have his leadership endorsed by a 39-33 vote of his parliamentary party, the race for succession has become a crowded scramble with four candidates throwing their hat in the ring.
The party decided to ditch Bruton after 10 years as leader at a marathon seven-hour meeting in Leinster House at which 48 members spoke.
Despite a strong fight, Bruton lost the no-confidence motion that had been raised by two of his long-time colleagues, Jim Mitchell, who is 54, and Micheal Noonan, 57.
They wielded the knife following an opinion poll that showed disastrous ratings for the party. The two veterans announced they would be candidates and would form a leader and deputy “dream team” no matter which of them won.
The other candidates, Enda Kenny, 49, and Bernard Allen, 56, both Bruton supporters, are also seeking the top job as the party’s TDs jockey for position and influence after Bruton’s departure. Both said they had been approached and persuaded to stand.
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One or more of the candidates may withdraw and consolidate his support for another contender ahead of the election of the new leader by proportional representation on Friday, Feb. 9.
After the coup, there is considerable bad feeling in the party and the closeness of the vote to oust Bruton shows how deep the split is.
The party’s chief whip, Charlie Flanagan, and former leader, Alan Dukes, had been mentioned as contenders, but both have ruled themselves out and pledged support for Noonan.
Noonan is the bookies’ favorite and polls show he is also the favorite among Fine Gael supporters. However, polls showed Mitchell was the public’s favorite.
Kenny, the youngest of the candidates — he will be 50 in April — will get support from many disenchanted Bruton supporters. His campaign organizers hope he will emerge as a Jack Lynch-style compromise choice.
Fifty-three-year-old Bruton saw off another challenge just last November, and said he would remain in politics and stand again in his Meath constituency.
With the next election not far away, the new leader will have to hit the ground running, heal the back-bench rift and face a Teflon-coated taoiseach and a government that has just given away millions and is soaring in the popularity ratings.
MRBI pollster Jack Jones outlined the new leader’s problem in the Irish Times.
He said the party’s 20 percent poll showing would return a “paltry” 38 seats. “This would be catastrophic.”
The party vote is down in all age groups up to 64. Twenty-two percent in the 25-34 age group and 13 percent among those under 24; 11 percent among worker electors and 10 percent among the middle class. Only the traditional farming support had held up at 28 percent in the 1981-97 period.
The party has not gone straight into government after an election for 19 years.
Bruton was taoiseach as head of the three-party coalition from December 1994 to June 1997. However, he only got the job after Albert Reynolds stepped down when his coalition with the Labour Party imploded.
€ Michael Noonan, first elected in Limerick East in 1981, is a former teacher. He has been Minister for Justice, Health and Industry and Commerce and was Bruton’s spokesman in Finance.
€ Jim Mitchell was first elected to the Ballyfermot constituency in 1977, and has been forced to switch constituencies twice due to re-drawing of boundaries. He worked for Guinness before entering politics. He has been Minister for Justice, Communications, Transport, Post and Telegraphs.
He was Bruton’s spokesman on the Public Service and recently recovered from a liver transplant. He won plaudits last year for his chairing of the hard-hitting probbe into the DIRT tax scandals
€ Enda Kenny, won a bye-election in Mayo to succeed his father in 1975. He is a former teacher. He has been minister for tourism and junior ministers at education and labor with special responsibility for youth affairs. A Bruton loyalist he was spokesman on education.
€ Bernard Allen, first elected to Cork North-central in 1981, is a former lab technician. He has never held cabinet rank but was junior minister in education and the environment. A Bruton loyalist, he was spokesman on sport and tourism.