By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN – After weeks of speculation Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has fired the starting gun for a three week election campaign with voting to be held on 17 May.
He caught everyone by surprise by going into the house moments before the Dail was due to adjourn for the night on 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 for good are present.
The Friday polling day 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 to the country at the weekends.
The polling booths will be open for an unprecedented 15 hours from 7.30am in an effort to maximize the vote.
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Opinion polls show Ahern and Fianna Fail are on track to lead the new government when the new Dail reconvenes on June 6.
The new administration is likely to be another coalition and, following the launch of his manifesto on Thursday, the Taoiseach emphasized that detailed analysis of all opinion polls indicated Fianna Fail would not get an overall majority.
“You can take my word, that as we start this campaign, the polls of all parties are showing that Fianna Fail are not close to an overall majority.”
With the slogan “A lot done, a lot more to do”, Ahern goes to the country after leading his minority Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrat coalition for the longest period in Irish history apart from one war-time government.
He called on his opponents to refrain from election mud-slinging.
“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.”
There was a scramble to launch manifesto documents and he quickly come under fire from the opposition.
Fine Gael leader Micheal 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.
“Bertie Ahern has little respect for the Irish public if he believes that they are gullible enough to fall for his lies again,” he said.
Labour Party leader Ruairi Quinn said Ahern had stayed too long leading a government “devoid of any vision or ambition”.
He said the manner in which Ahern had announced the dissolution was “typical of the contempt with which he had treated the Oireachtas” during his five years in office.
“It is without precedent for a Taoiseach to come into a virtually empty chamber and make an announcement dissolving the Dail without the courtesy of notifying opposition leaders that a statement of such importance was to be made.”