Transfers hold key to tight poll

GAME on. What was supposed to be the most predictable of the four European constituencies has taken an intriguing twist.

Fianna Fáil veteran Gerry Collins and Independent disability rights campaigner Kathy Sinnott are engaged in a ding-dong battle for the last seat in the South constituency.

The Irish Examiner/Prime Time opinion poll, conducted by Lansdowne Market Research, shows that sitting MEP Brian Crowley of Fianna Fáil will again comfortably top the poll in the South constituency with 30% of the poll although this is down on his previous performance in 1999, when he secured 154,000 votes and 34% of the vote.

Next past the post will be Fine Gael TD Simon Coveney, who appears to have justified his party's decision to run just one candidate, by scoring a substantial 26% of the poll.

Next in line comes Mr Collins on 15%, down from 18.5% in the 1999 outcome, but he is followed by Ms Sinnott currently on 13%.

Labour, the Green Party and Sinn Féin, each on around 5% of the poll, are not at the races but their input may yet prove crucial.

From Labour's viewpoint, this is a particularly poor showing by Senator Brendan Ryan, who is being outpolled by Sinn Féin's relative unknown, David Cullinane, and matched by the Green Party's Chris O'Leary, who only became a councillor two years ago when he took over the Cork County Council seat held by Green TD Dan Boyle.

Nonetheless, these three candidates will play a vital role in the final outcome as Ms Sinnott will be dependent upon their transfers to take a seat. Analysis by Lansdowne Market Research of the transfer patterns shows Ms Sinnott is likely to pip Mr Collins at the post.

Fianna Fáil's vote management strategy aimed at bringing both their candidates in on similar first preference totals is clearly not working as Mr Crowley's vote is twice as big as that of Mr Collins.

The party's goal of securing at least 45% of the vote is still on track, but the imbalance in the division of support between the two candidates leaves Mr Collins utterly dependent on Mr Crowley having a substantial surplus to pass on.

Considering that in 1999 more than half of Mr Crowley's surplus, 53%, went directly to Mr Collins, this is a tried and tested formula. This opinion poll shows 68% of Mr Crowley's second preference votes going directly to Mr Collins.

However, the absence of the Fianna Fáil stronghold of Clare and the fact that the reduction in the number of seats raises the quota, Mr Crowley may have less of a surplus to pass on.

Another cause for concern is the drop in Mr Crowley's vote from 34% to 30%, although that is still a remarkable return for any politician.

Just a week ago, it appeared the outcome was a foregone conclusion after European Parliament President Pat Cox finally confirmed that he was not going to run in this election.

The glee on the faces of the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael strategists was as palpable as their relief.

Conspiracy theorists protest that a Machiavellian deal was struck between Mr Cox and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. In return for Mr Cox standing down and clearing the way for Fianna Fáil to hold on to its two seats in the former Munster constituency, Mr Ahern would back Mr Cox's bid to become Commission President.

That theory didn't bank on Kathy Sinnott emerging as the strongest challenger to the status quo.

It's not as if Fianna Fáil is unaware of the threat posed by Ms Sinnott.

Just ask John Dennehy. Following a monumental battle in the 2002 general election the Fianna Fail TD just held on to his seat in Cork South-Central by six votes. That should have set alarm bells ringing.

At the time, commentators attributed the close call to the absence of an effective vote management strategy between Minister for Health Micheál Martin and his running mates.

This time, Brian Crowley's refusal to abide by the constituency carve-up drafted by FF director of elections John O'Donoghue could end up costing his party dear. Confirmation that Ms Sinnott was a player came earlier this week when insiders in both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael queried the level of media coverage she was receiving and then Senator Ryan launched a bitter personal attack on her credentials.

The results of this opinion poll show their fears are well founded. It's all to play for but it's too close to call.

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