FIANNA Fail can gain council seats in Limerick next May despite the overall number of councillors being reduced from 45 to 40 through amalgamation, according to Micheal Martin.
An upbeat party leader said that while headquarters “will not interfere” with the selection of candidates, leaving that to the grassroots, the party reserved the right to add candidates if they feel the ticket needs strengthening in a particular area.
“We are looking for gains in Limerick. Coming into it, we are strong in the county but very weak in the city. I know Willie O’Dea and Niall Collins have been sounding out new and emerging candidates with a view to gaining seats so I would be hopeful we would gain seats in Limerick - but a precise number we don’t yet have,” said Deputy Martin.
The party, he insisted, was committed to a target of 30% women candidates although this looks to be a tall order without additions.
Deputy O’Dea’s secretary Yvonne McMahon is one of three candidates to have made it through a selection convention for Limerick City North, the only such convention to have taken place to date. But Geraldine Leddin in Limerick City West is the only other female candidate believed to have a firm interest in running. With around 20 candidates in total expected to run, this could leave the party some way short of its self-imposed gender quota. All 10 sitting councillors in the county and city are men.
“We have our own target of 30% of candidates that we want as women even though there is no obligation,” Deputy Martin said. “Part of the renewal of the party involves getting more women active at all levels but particularly at electoral level.”
Party HQ could take the initiative if not enough women are put before the electorate next May, Mr Martin said.
“We have a national constituencies committee, a subcommittee of the national executive, which reserves the right to add candidates and we will take stock of how we do in selection conventions in terms of the number of women contesting and, having taken stock, we may very well correct or add to ensure we have a sufficient number of women,” he said.
An issue to be factored in was the number of sitting councillors seeking re-election when the total number of seats up for grabs is being reduced through the amalgamation of Limerick city and county councils.
But “the selection conventions themselves may not be the end of the story”, Mr Martin said.
The party also had the right to remove those who make it through convention “but obviously that is a more difficult area for a number of reasons, particularly if the grassroots have selected somebody”.
It was true that Fianna Fail wished to do better in larger towns, Deputy Martin said, but this did not mean candidates from less populous areas would be discouraged from running.
Cllr Kevin Sheahan, Askeaton, told the Leader last month that the party would favour candidates from larger centres of population but barrister and farmer Emmett O’Brien, Pallaskenry, who is also seeking a place on the ticket in Adare-Rathkeale said there was no such direction from the party leadership.
“We don’t favour any particular candidate,” Deputy Martin said.
“I know outgoing councillors in some areas have got elected and demonstrated their strength over the years but also we are conscious, and I don’t want to apply this to any location in Limerick, that nationally we would be weak in towns. We are anxious to be stronger in towns in this election wherever possible.
“Our footprint is not as strong in towns as it should be so that certainly is a factor in our overall consideration,” he said.
“Obviously geography is important but the quality of the candidate is number one in my view, the workrate of people and the degree to which the are rooted and active in the community is important as well.”
Fianna Fail were “not there yet” in terms of winning back the full confidence of the electorate but “people are receptive and talking to us about a whole range of issues: obviously the mortgage arrears, the property tax are big concerns and getting through education and the costs of that is increasingly a worry”.
“We are starting early in terms of selection conventions and we are going to work hard at it. People want choice to select from a good range of candidate and they want a robust policy platform as well.”
The referendum over the abolition of the Seanad, he acknowledged, had hardly captured the imagination of the public but the least they deserved was to have the Taoiseach debate the matter in public.
“A basic element of democracy in my view is the capacity to argue and to debate,” said Deputy Martin.
“We encourage our young people to become involved in politics to become involved in debate and in weighing up the pros and cons, the merits and demerits, of an argument. And I think it sends out the wrong signal that political leaders are not prepared to debate on the public airwaves the issues that they initiate and apparently have close to their heart. The Taoiseach initiated this. He is spending €14 milllion this year on a referendum and is not prepared to debate it openly with anybody. I think that is regrettable stance for him to take and I would ask him to reconsider.”