By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — In a week when Bertie Ahern’s government should have been under pressure about labor unrest and Fine Gael launched a marketing campaign to "eradicate the Celtic Snail," it was John Bruton who ended up being slimed as he was forced to deal with a challenge to his leadership.
A motion of no confidence raised by maverick TD Austin Deasy failed as none of the pretenders to the leadership in Fine Gael emerged to challenge Bruton.
According to the Irish Times, a secret opinion poll undertaken last May by Fine Gael supporters showed Limerick TD and Department of Finance spokesman Michael Noonan was favored by 44 percent of the party should Bruton’s 10-year stint as leader be ended.
With both Bruton and his party languishing in the opinion polls, the attempt to unseat him from the leadership is a further blow to party confidence.
Fine Gael sources said his margin of victory among the 66 members of the parliamentary party was about five to one, but no figures for the secret ballot were disclosed.
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Deasy, who has previously launched a push against two other party leaders, is retiring from politics at the next general election but hopes his son will succeed him.
The Waterford TD’s motion was easily outmaneuvered. Within hours of it being raised, the front bench unanimously backed Bruton and quickly called the parliamentary meeting. This gave the dissident faction little time to organize.
However, an angry Deasy was eager to "correct" the official line on the margin of victory, describing the suggestion of a five-to-one majority as "highly erroneous" and a "manipulation" of the figures.
He was one of the four people to attend the counting of votes. While precluded from giving the result, he said 19 members spoke at the parliamentary meeting and of those, 13 opposed the motion and six were in favor.
"That is a more realistic assessment of the support the motion received," he said.
With the strong possibility of an election next year, Bruton now needs to rapidly stamp his authority on the party and pursue a more effective opposition strategy.
With his leadership of the last rainbow coalition, Bruton has already shown he can be an effective taoiseach.
Fine Gael’s "Celtic Snail" campaign is designed to pour scorn on the government’s failures.
It is intended to highlight the slowness of the Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrat coalition in dealing with growing infrastructural problems, travel gridlock and industrial difficulties and make it look slimy in dealing with the sleaze issues emerging from the tribunals.
However, the campaign is already the butt of jokes and there is a danger the coalition will closely embrace the tiger while the snail will be associated with Fine Gael.