The European Elections: Stars take to the hustings in Irish 'soap opera' poll: View from Dublin: Television personalities are lending a show-business air to the election. Alan Murdoch reports

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The Independent Online
It should, in theory, have been the quietest of polls. The last time Ireland held a European election unconnected to any domestic vote, in 1984, apathy swept the nation. Only 47 per cent bothered to vote - only Britain scored lower. But Ireland's European campaign has been enlivened, though not made dignified, by blazing rows over candidate selection in the main parties, and a series of brazen political muggings.

Inevitably, debates have centred on the recent surge in European Union annual spending in Ireland to pounds 2.18bn, a net annual gain of pounds 1.7bn. This - and the promise of pounds 7bn on regional and economic aid over six years - has prompted government parties to trumpet prestige projects that they have 'won' from Brussels. Left-wing opponents respond that 'fat cat' big farmers are grabbing an outrageously large share of Ireland's Euro-cash.

The presence on the hustings of a national television celebrity lent a soap-opera quality to the first media row of the campaign. The 15 Irish seats in Strasbourg are distributed in four giant constituencies, with three or four seats each. Voters have a single transferable vote, listing candidates in order of choice. It makes the battles within parties as vicious as the battles between parties.

The Labour Party leader and Irish Foreign Minister, Dick Spring, set up an internecine battle by insisting on running a television star in the Dublin constituency, alongside the woman who had upset his plans by narrowly winning the selection convention.

Irish papers and television revelled in the chance to pit a long- standing party-worker, Bernie Malone, a substitute MEP for the last three months, against a former television war correspondent, Orla Guerin, a battle-hardened veteran of Moscow, the Baltic states, and latterly Bosnia.

Critics complain that she is being 'parachuted' into politics. But at only 28, the teetotal Ms Guerin is frighteningly articulate on most subjects. On the canvass she gets asked if she really has a bullet-proof vest. Within the opposition, centre-right Progressive Democrats (PD), more explosive tensions erupted. The recently retired party leader, Des O'Malley, replaced the party's finance spokesman and sitting MEP, Pat Cox, as an independent candidate in the Munster Euro constituency. Ireland's poll leader in 1989, the boyish Mr Cox is now running against Mr O'Malley. As a result, neither can be certain of election.

The Fine Gael veteran MEP and former justice minister, Paddy Cooney, stormed off the ticket when the party decided to run three party candidates in Leinster, chasing just four seats.

Parachuting claims also accompanied the urbane Olive Braiden's arrival on the Dublin ticket of the principal government party, Fianna Fail. Backed strongly by the Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, she has been described as the epitome of the new party he hopes to mould: 'Modern, modern, modern, and in a skirt.'

A former Rape Crisis Centre director and a liberal activist on women's issues, she is being promoted in a glossy cinema video. Her canvassers travel in a fleet of gleaming jeeps. But campaign sources suggest she is getting the cold shoulder from conservative Fianna Fail activists. She risks losing liberal support for joining a party which until recently conformed to the Vatican's line on abortion and divorce.

Between beauty contests and dogfights, real debate on European issues has been hard to find. The liveliest argument centres on the extreme left's claims that Dublin's 100,000 unemployed are being betrayed, because the city is not getting its fair share of EU funding.

Pat Rabbitte, the Democratic Left's Dublin candidate, complains that 'more than 50 per cent of European funds reaching Ireland went to just 3 per cent of the population - the country's richest farmers,' some receiving Common Agricultural Policy payments of pounds 70,000 to leave land idle.

Unabashed, the government parties have milked every possible electoral advantage from EU spending in Ireland. Strategically delayed announcements of prestige public-spending projects have been released regularly over the last week: one day it was a new orthopaedic hospital in the west of Ireland, the next, a Dublin general hospital and a state-aided electronics factory.

The campaign's roughest assaults on the increasingly comfortable Fianna Fail-Labour coalition parties came from the centre- right opposition, who used domestic issues as ammunition. Fine Gael's Jim Mitchell, a political ambulance-chaser, successful in every election he has fought, marked his arrival on the Dublin ticket by sensationally claiming that the Attorney General and the president of the High Court had become politically compromised. The uproar ensured days of headlines for him. Mr Mitchell then stuck a populist two fingers up at an earlier leader, the reformist Garret Fitzgerald, by complaining that Fine Gael was 'choking on its liberal agenda'.

(Photograph omitted)

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