Ireland blocks its own best man

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THE CHANCES of Peter Sutherland being nominated for the job of European Commission president by his own country have fallen hostage to a power struggle in Dublin.

The ruling Irish coalition's promise to reappoint its existing commissioner, Padraig Flynn, makes Mr Sutherland's chances of emerging as a compromise candidate extremely tenuous. Ireland has only one Commission seat. Mr Sutherland cannot be nominated by Dublin for the president's job without dumping Mr Flynn.

The fact that Mr Sutherland comes from the main opposition party, Fine Gael, and not from the coalition parties, Fianna Fail and Labour, is just one of his troubles. Fine Gael yesterday attempted to table an emergency motion in the Dail to pitch their man's undeclared candidacy for the top EU post. But the coalition's secure majority - and the distraction of the Ireland-Norway World Cup match - meant the move was doomed from the start.

Support for the sitting Commissioner has nothing to do with admiration for the man or his competent performance. Labour ministers are ideologically and personally allergic to the ambitious Mr Flynn (and have been since 1990, when he verbally roughed up their successful presidential candidate, Mary Robinson, claiming she had 'a newly discovered interest in her family'.)

During coalition-building negotiations with Fianna Fail, Labour insisted Mr Flynn not be part of the government. Appointing Mr Flynn commissioner was the method used by the Fianna Fail leader, Albert Reynolds, to remove his party colleague and supporter from the field.

'If he hadn't gone, there wouldn't have been a coalition. It was as simple as that,' a senior government source said. Animosity to Mr Flynn extends to many senior members of his own party.

It is no coincidence that Mary Harney, leader of the opposition Progressive Democrats, is among the most vociferous Sutherland supporters in the Dail. As a junior environment minister under Mr Flynn she reportedly found him 'insufferable' and sought a transfer from the then Taoiseach, Charles Haughey.

Mr Reynolds, who will work with the most difficult customers when he has to, may have his own reasons for keeping Mr Flynn at least 500 miles from home. Mindful of Mr Flynn's relentless ambition, the Taoiseach could never feel safe with him in Dublin.

Mr Sutherland is not lacking forceful backing from the media. The Irish Times has argued the benefits of Ireland having the Commission presidendcy, while an editorial in the Sunday Tribune stated: 'It is quite clear Sutherland has more than a good chance of succeeding Mr Delors if his own government would only back him . . . Backing Mr Sutherland is the right thing to do.'

What might unlock the Irish fix is pressure from Chancellor Kohl, reminding Dublin of its EU duty, and the Euro-bounty that has been flowing Ireland's way.