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Six Nations match at centre of row over Irish General Election date

Alan Kelly declares 'ambition' and says: 'I am my own boss'

Published 01/02/2016

It's feared many Fine Gael voters will be more concerned with travelling to the Ireland Six Nations rugby match against England in Twickenham on February 27, than voting.
It's feared many Fine Gael voters will be more concerned with travelling to the Ireland Six Nations rugby match against England in Twickenham on February 27, than voting.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny is facing an extraordinary standoff with Environment Minister Alan Kelly over the General Election date.

Labour is putting sustained pressure on Mr Kenny to hold the election on Friday, February 26, to allow younger voters attending universities and colleges to travel home to vote, according to the Sunday Independent.

But Fine Gael wants the election to take place a day before, on the Thursday, to allow party supporters to vote and then travel to a Six Nations rugby match that Saturday.

The latest tensions between the Coalition parties come as Mr Kenny is expected to call the election this week.

With as many as 13 Government ministers in danger of losing their seats, both Coalition parties are anxious to maximise their potential vote.

Mr Kelly is one of those said to be at risk, as is the Labour leader Joan Burton and other Labour senior ministers, Jan O'Sullivan and Alex White, while Fine Gael minister Paschal Donohoe is also in danger of losing his seat.

Yesterday, Mr Kelly was privately telling colleagues he will only sign off on the election day "as long as it's on Friday the 26th".

Separately, in an interview with the Sunday Independent this weekend, he boasts of his ambition and ruthlessness and states: "I am very direct. I am very decisive... and I am in a hurry all the time. I am very quick to make my views known."

The unprecedented standoff between Mr Kelly and Mr Kenny will this weekend be seized on by the opposition parties as the latest example of Coalition 'instability'.

Yesterday Fianna Fail's environment spokesman, Barry Cowen, said: "So much for stability. They can't even agree on this. What a joke they have become - squabbling with each other right down to the end."

The Dail can only be dissolved by the President on the advice of the Taoiseach. A general election must be held within 30 days of the dissolution. The procedure is that the clerk of the Dail issues a writ to the returning officer in each constituency instructing him or her to hold an election.

But responsibility for appointing the polling day actually falls to the minister for the environment.

And speaking at the Labour Party conference in Mullingar yesterday, Mr Kelly insisted: "I believe that elections should always be on a Friday."

He sought to play down the rift somewhat: "That will be decided by the Government in the coming days. Legally, I have to move the writ but I'm sure at Government level we'll agree a date."

Pressed on whether he would make an issue of the election date if Fine Gael were to push for a Thursday vote, Mr Kelly replied: "After coming through what we've come through in the last five years I'm sure we'll agree on a date."

However, Mr Kelly has broad support within Labour for his stance on the election date with some members insisting it would be a "scandal" if Mr Kenny did not hold the election at the weekend to allow more young people vote.

The Tanaiste Joan Burton does not have any " huge desire" for either date but does favour a Friday vote, according to sources.

In his interview with the Sunday Independent, Mr Kelly said of Ms Burton: "We are very different characters…Joan is more reflective." He also described himself as his own "boss".

There is strong support for Mr Kelly's position on the election date within Labour.

Yesterday Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan said: "The most important thing with an election is that it should be held at a time when people will actually come out and vote. It seems that Friday is the best day in terms of turnout. We tried Saturday for referenda and it wasn't all that successful in terms of numbers," she said.

Former minister and influential Labour TD Willie Penrose said holding the election on a Thursday would "deprive" young people and workers from voting.

"It would deprive people of their opportunity to exercise their franchise. I'd like to see the maximum number of people have that opportunity," he said, adding that it is "critical" young people can make it home to vote.

In Fine Gael, Thursday is the preferred date among senior members close to the Taoiseach and those involved in election preparations. Among the concerns discussed by strategists is the Ireland Six Nations rugby match against England in Twickenham on Saturday, February 27.

It is feared many of those travelling to the match are potential Fine Gael voters and will be more concerned with making flights or catching ferries than voting on the Friday before the high- profile rugby international.

Mr Kenny's advisors believe the party will get a strong turnout of their core vote if they hold the election on Thursday and it will also reduce the impact of the Sinn Fein vote.

Philip Ryan, Niamh Horan, Niall O'Connor, Sunday Independent

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