Decision day for Hume in Irish presidential saga

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The Independent Online
John Hume, leader of Northern Ireland's Social Democratic and Labour Party, is today likely to end the on-off saga surrounding his ambition to succeed Mary Robinson as Irish President.

If he opts to stand it is generally accepted in political circles that the extent of his popular backing will force several other hopefuls out of the running.

After a summer of conflicting signals, Mr Hume's indecision has come up against an effective deadline of this week's parliamentary meetings of the main Dail parties to select their candidates.

Signals from the Hume camp until now suggested he would like the job but only if given a clear run by an invitation to stand from Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour, Ireland's three main parties.

But this luxury has not been provided, amid growing public and Dail conviction that the President should have the popular mandate conferred by an election.

There is a view in Dublin that an explicitly Northern nationalist president at a time when imminent multi-party talks are seeking a delicate balance between Unionist and nationalist camps might not be in the island's best interests. Mrs Robinson's fastidiously neutral stance on the North won public praise even from fringe loyalists. Others have warned feel the hugely-increased national and world profile Mrs Robinson gave the presidency, once a retirement post for greying Dail politicians, may prove too demanding for Mr Hume's fragile health.

However, Mr Hume remains the clear favourite. A recent opinion poll gave him 31 per cent support, with the former taoiseach Albert Reynolds in second place with 13 per cent.

Nominations close at the end of this month, and the election is due on 30 October. Mrs Robinson formally leaves the post at the end of this week, handing over powers in the interim to a presidential commission.

Alan Murdoch