Parties ready to fire first volleys of next election

THE countdown to the next general election begins in earnest today with Fianna Fáil meeting to discuss strategy and Fine Gael and Labour launching their first shared policy document.

Amid polling that shows Fianna Fáil in danger of losing 15 seats, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern will open the annual parliamentary party conference with an address in the Slieve Russell Hotel in Co Cavan at 1.30pm.

Forty-five minutes later, Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny and deputy leader Richard Bruton will meet their Labour counterparts, Pat Rabbitte and Liz McManus, in Co Westmeath.

In Cavan, Fianna Fáil members will hear over two days from a range of guest speakers, including AIB's Oliver Mangan on the economy; Irish rugby team coach Eddie O'Sullivan on goal-setting and motivational techniques; Dr Maureen Gaffney of the National Economic and Social Forum (NESF), Nóirín Hayes of the Children's Rights Alliance, and tax specialist Pam Kearney on childcare issues.

The conference will also hear from US academic Robert Putnam on ways to revive community values.

Professor Putnam is author of Bowling Alone, an influential book that explored the collapse of community in American society, and which the Taoiseach believes his party can draw upon to address similar problems here.

"His research is hugely relevant to what's going on here," Mr Ahern said on Saturday.

The conference, which will also involve a series of workshops and brainstorming sessions, should see the party finalise general strategy for the election, likely to be in 2007.

The party is suffering from a major perception problem, not helped by

financial advisor Eddie Hobbs' widely-watched TV show, Rip Off Republic, which has resulted in the Government taking flak for high consumer prices and indirect taxes.

But Fine Gael and Labour are also struggling to convince the public that they could form a viable alternative, with current indicators suggesting that, despite

Fianna Fáil being at risk of losing seats, the two parties would not win enough seats to oust it.

Labour and Fine Gael's meeting in Westmeath is ostensibly to mark the first anniversary of the "Mullingar Accord" the strategy the two formulated last year to implement an agreed programme in Westmeath by co-operating at county council level.

But the meeting has been carefully timed to draw attention away from the Fianna Fáil event in Cavan. The first anniversary of the accord is tomorrow.

The accord was the first step in the effort by both parties to convince the electorate they could form a viable alternative government.

A further step was taken during the summer, when Mr Kenny and Mr Rabbitte began discussions on a joint electoral strategy.

Today, the initial results will be seen when the parties launch their first shared policy document.

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