The hardline right-winger Michael McDowell looks set to be elected leader of the Progressive Democrats in a move that could herald a shift in politics in the 26 Counties and an early election.
If elected, McDowell would also become the new Tanaiste [Deputy Prime Minister] in the Dublin government. The former party leader and Tanaiste, Mary Harney, resigned from the leadership of the junior coalition partner during the week.
The current Minister for Justice may be elected unopposed if both of the two current junior ministers, Tom Parlon and Liz O'Donnell, fail to present themselves as a moderate candidate for the PD leadership in opposition to McDowell.
A series of declarations of support by current and former members of parliament and councillors for Mr McDowell, orchestrated to have maximum effect, has damaged the prospect of any alternative contender to build momentum behind a campaign.
There is a growing belief that the current coalition government has been destabilised by Harney's resignation. Recent posturing by the 26-County Prime Minister, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and his Fianna Fail party are being interpreted as signs that an election could take place much earlier than its due date next summer.
Under the party's election rules, if Mr McDowell is the only nominated candidate for the leadership on Monday at noon, he could be declared party leader as early as Monday night at a meeting of the party's national executive scheduled for 7pm.
The PD's have been accused of exerting undue influence in relation to its seize within the coalition government. McDowell and Harney have repeatedly been the focus of controversy. Harney is currently attempting to privatise the health system and Aer Lingus, while McDowell has been embroiled in scandals over loopholes in rape legislation, the preventable deaths of a number of prisoners or people in custody, and corruption and anarchy in the Garda police.
Under McDowell's control, the PDs are expected to move further to the right, with McDowell capitalising on his 'bulldog' reputation and issues such as immigration and security in a manner similar to that of Jean Le Pen in France.
Sinn Fein has already accused McDowell of being committed to playing the race card in advance of the next election. The Dublin South-Central TD, Aengus O Snodaigh, has reaffirmed this position following the announcement of measures in the new Immigration Bill. He described Minister McDowell's efforts to play the race card as 'cowardice, hypocrisy and racism.'
"The proposals on summary deportation for example, are clearly discriminatory. People will be subject to deportation for associating with criminal elements or even minor traffic infringements. Thus, people will be punished for who they might know or who they might be related to even if they are not involved in crime themselves or are not aware of the other's involvement.
"We must also oppose the proposal to cut off access to the judicial review system for asylum seekers who fail to get refugee status. Minister McDowell's claim that he wishes to abolish it because of his concern for the length of the process requires a great deal of naivete for anyone to take seriously. The reality is that he wishes to eliminate key rights and protections for those fleeing violence and persecution.
"If he is concerned about the length of their stay, he can improve and speed up the judicial review process instead of abolishing it.
"Coming into the next election, the government has clearly decided on a simple mantra when confronted with the evidence of their catastrophic failures in social service provision. Blame the Nigerians, don't blame Bertie will be their message. Blame the Poles, don't blame Mary Harney. Blame the Romanians, don't blame Michael McDowell.
"James Connolly called it 'ruling by fooling'. I call it cowardice, hypocrisy and racism and we must all be prepared to stand up to it."
SF ELECTION CAMPAIGN STEPS UP
With all parties now on full election footing, Sinn Fein MP for West Tyrone Pat Doherty has said his party is confident of doubling its Dail representation at the next general election.
Sinn Fein currently has five TDs, but speaking at its annual think-in ahead of the new term of the Dublin parliament today, Mr Doherty said the party was confident of winning ten seats next year.
The party is fielding at least 41 candidates in the election, with more selections still to take place.
Gerry Adams, speaking at a a day-long party meeting in Howth, County Dublin said his party was determined to deliver real change across Ireland.
"At the core of our campaign will be proposals to end the crisis in the health service, advance the peace process and Irish unity and build a strong economy that delivers for all.
"In the coming months we will be putting a major policy platform before the people and taking our campaign to every corner of Ireland."