Irish election harvests its own sleaze crop

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The Independent Online
All over the prime grasslands of Tipperary North, farmers were this week sweating in scorching heat, turning lush fields into five-foot high rolls of hay for silage. But for the voters in Ireland's "sleaze" constituency it is the rich harvest one man has already reaped that is the burning issue.

Michael Lowry has been embroiled in controversy since he was forced to resign as transport minister and leave the Fine Gael (FG) party last November amid a financial scandal. To the consternation of government and public, Mr Lowry may now not only retain his seat but romp home at the top of the poll in the three-seat constituency.

On the road from the market town of Roscrea, Mr Lowry's stronghold of Thurles, the confident face of the sports star turned businessman- politician looks out from billboards in the blue and gold colours of Tipperary's Gaelic sports teams.

This is not accidental. Mr Lowry, 43, a former hurler at club level, played a decisive part in raising funds to clear pounds 1.2m debts left by rebuilding Thurles' Semple Stadium, the county's Gaelic Athletic Association ground, home to Tipperary's crack hurling team.

His slogan, "Secure Tipp's Future", reminds voters of public investment in the area secured while Mr Lowry was a TD (MP), then minister. But since news that he was paid for business services with a large house extension worth up to pounds 395,000 with furnishings from the stores magnate Ben Dunne, his former party leader the Taoiseach John Bruton has been distancing himself from him.

It also emerged that Mr Lowry took advantage of an income tax amnesty which his party had opposed. Plus, there was the embarrassment of tabloid revelations of a holiday he took in Spain with a female companion.

Then a tribunal investigating Mr Dunne's payments to politicians heard evidence of a sum of pounds 105,000 made to Mr Lowry for legitimate business services that was imaginatively routed through the Isle of Man. Mr Lowry, in a "full" account to the Dail of his dealings with Mr Dunne, had failed to mention this. FG has disowned him as a candidate and he is standing as an independent.

A local businessman explains enduring support for Mr Lowry: "On the tax issue, people here say 'Well, [politicians] are all at it and he was just the one that got caught.' It is a fact that he has done a lot for the area."

Among professional middle classes tending their yachts in the evening sun at the picturesque village of Dromineer beside Lough Derg, there are more doubts, particularly about the tax issue.

That cloud over Mr Lowry is likely to boost the chances of Labour's Kathleen O'Meara becoming the first woman TD here in over 40 years. "I believe I am the right woman in the right place at the right time," she declares. To target rural votes she has revived the tradition of delivering speeches at village church gates after Sunday mass.

Her confidence is clear when she takes the battle into the heart of Mr Lowry's home base. She gets a sympathetic hearing from working-class women in Kennedy Park. "I think women have to be present when important decisions are being made," she says.

Ms O'Meara's strong showing and anti-FG transfers when second preferences from Mr Lowry's surplus are redistributed means that one of the two Fianna Fail candidates, the ex- ministers Michael O'Kennedy and Michael Smith, will probably lose. The women's vote is the wild card in the ballot.

But if the national result goes to the wire, the country may face the possibility of Mr Lowry holding the balance of power. Thurles may back its man through thick and thin, but voters nationally are not so forgiving. A weekend poll for the Dublin Sunday Independent found 59 per cent against the present government returning to office if it were only able to secure a majority with his support.

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