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Candidates hit the hustings with election on the horizon

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Andrew Bushe

DUBLIN — After weeks of speculation, taoiseach Bertie Ahern has finally fired the starting gun in the general election campaign and announced a Friday, May 17, polling date.

So far, it has been marked by a war of words and figures focused on the economy as parties launched manifestos explaining how they will try and balance the government’s books while funding election pledges.

The intricate claim and counterclaim about the future for deteriorating public finances in the wake of the Celtic Tiger boom — borrow, raise taxes, sell off public assets, raid the national pension fund, cut job/spending — has failed to set the campaign alight.

Planes, helicopters and buses bring party leaders sweeping through the hustings. The PDs brought journalists on a “mystery” bus tour that ended up in Prosperous, Co. Kildare, just so they could use the town’s the name to signal future prosperity in press releases.

The end of phony war of an uncalled election campaign that has been building up since the beginning of the year eventually came a day earlier than expected.

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Ahern caught everyone by surprise by going into the house seconds before the Dail was due to adjourn for the night last Wednesday to say he planned to formally seek a dissolution from President Mary McAleese early on Thursday.

There were only three members in the house and only one of them was an opposition TD. In the past dissolutions have normally been announced to packed Dails during the order of business and those retiring from politics are present.

The planned voting arrangements reflect worries about apathy and stayaway voters following low polls in the Nice and abortion referendums.

The Friday ballot for the 2.9 million strong electorate — an 8 percent increase on the 1997 general election — is to facilitate young people or those working in towns and cities who go home to the country at the weekends.

The polling booths will be open for an unprecedented 15 hours, from 7:30 a.m. in an effort to maximize the vote.

But up to a quarter of people still haven’t made up their mind and there are fears that many won’t bother to vote.

Opinion polls show Ahern and Fianna Fail are on track to lead the new government when the new Dail reconvenes on June 6. The bookies have Ahern at 10-1 on be next taoiseach, with Fine Gael leader Michael Noonan trailing at 5-1.

The new administration is likely to be another coalition and the taoiseach has been emphasizing that detailed analyses of all opinion polls indicate Fianna Fail will not get an overall majority.

“That [an overall majority] isn’t even a debating point in my view,” Ahern said. “On our own calculations we have to be about 3 or 4 percent up to hold what we have. That’s about eight or nine seats short of an overall majority.”

Ahern has again ruled out Sinn Fein in government or outside as supporters of a minority coalition.

“That’s some years away,” he said. “Certainly it’s not this election and certainly it’s not a year away. I do not think that is a runner at this stage in any form.”

However, he is keeping other options open on other possible partnerships. So far, he said, there was nothing in the manifestos of the PDs or the Labor Party that he would find “impossible” if he was negotiating a program of government with them for a future coalition.

With the slogan “A lot done, a lot more to do”, Ahern goes to the country after leading the minority Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrat minority coalition for the longest period in Irish history (a month short of five years) apart from one war-time government.

He called on his opponents to refrain from election mudslinging.

“In the three weeks ahead I pledge my party and I ask all parties to give the people of Ireland the campaign they deserve — a campaign of substance not slander, of issues not insults.”

With daily press conferences and a rush to launch manifestos, Ahern and the coalition’s record quickly came under fire.

Noonan described Ahern’s plea for support on the basis of promises made and promises kept as “laughable in light of the tissues of lies that Fianna Fail told the Irish public at the last election.”

“This administration had had greater resources than any other government in the history of the state yet our quality of life has never been poorer,” he said. “Bertie Ahern has little respect for the Irish public if he believes that they are gullible enough to fall for his lies again.”

Labor Party leader Ruairi Quinn said Ahern had stayed too long leading a government “devoid of any vision or ambition.”

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