Talks between Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and potential coalition government partners have been hit by fresh controversy over suspect payments received by him when he was Minister for Finance.

With Mr Ahern in pole position to form the next government following last week’s 26-County general election, it has been reported that he may be attempting a deal with the two remaining Progressive Democrats (PDs) and a diverse group of five independents.

However, both Ahern and senior members of Ahern’s Fianna Fail party have called for a stable coalition, which would suggest a deal with one of the left-wing parties is a more likely outcome.

At least 83 deputies are required for a majority in the Dublin parliament, meaning Ahern must secure the support of at least five other TDs in order to win re-election as Taoiseach. The Green Party, with its six TDs, has been mentioned as the most likely coalition partner to allow Ahern to complete his goal of a historic third term as Taoiseach.

Although Fianna Fail lost four seats relative to its performance five years ago, the election was seen as a surprise triumph for Ahern in the face of public anger over the failure to improve public services.

After several years of breakneck economic growth, concern among Irish voters over a suddden decline in their personal financial security -- in particular, a potential crash in property values -- was seen as a key factor in voters coming out to back the status quo.

Following a last-minute swing, the left-wing parties such as Sinn Féin, Labour and the Greens, were unexpectedly reduced to their core support. The effect was most noticeable in working class areas of Dublin, where a swing to the political mainstream strongly boosted Fianna Fail as well as the largest opposition party, Fine Gael.

The biggest reverses were suffered by Michael McDowell’s Progressive Democrats, which had regularly threatened to collapse the Dublin government in the scandal over Ahern’s personal finances.

Doubts raised yesterday by the Mahon tribunal about the Taoiseach’s account of his personal finances should create “serious issues” for parties considering joining a Fianna Fail-led coalition, Fine Gael has said.

Fine Gael deputy leader, Richard Bruton said its “too early to say” if it would affect coalition talks, though he said “some discrepancies” now appeared to exist with Mr Ahern’s pre-election statement, which had appeared to clear the air over the latest controversy.

Independent TD, Finian McGrath, one of those whose vote may be needed to form the next government, said the Taoiseach is entitled to “due process” and deserves “a fair hearing”.

McGrath’s strategy, and that of fellow Dublin independent, veteran socialist Tony Gregory, could be crucial to deciding the make-up of the election. Two other independents, Kerry’s Jackie Healy-Rae and Beverly Cooper-Flynn of the Flynn dynasty in Mayo, are more likely to line up in Ahern’s camp.

The strongest surviving Independent, Michael Lowry, expressed his preference for Fine Gael, but said that if that was not possible he would be willing to consider supporting a government led by Mr Ahern.

“I am now available to have discussions in the interests of the people that I serve here in Tipperary in relation to the formation of the next government,” he said.

Green Party leader Trevor Sargent said his party would be willing to speak to Fianna Fail but he insisted that any talks would be driven by a policy agenda. “We’re open to talk to everybody. But anyone who wants to talk to us, I’d advise them to read our manifesto and policies first,” he said.

He said any possible government involving his party “will have to be a Green one”, adding that policies tackling issues such as global warming and public services would be priorities.

Mr Sargent has indicated, however, that he would not lead the Green Party into coalition with Fianna Fail. He indicated last night that this position had not changed.

The turnout was up by almost 5 per cent, at 67.3 per cent, compared to 62.6 per cent in 2002.

Overall, Fianna Fail polled just under 41.6 per cent of the first-preference vote, almost exactly the same as 2002. Fine Gael polled 27.3 per cent, an increase of 5 per cent; Labour took 10.1 per cent, a drop of half a percent; the PDs took just 2.7 per cent, a drop of 1.2 per cent; the Greens polled 4.7 per cent, an increase of 1 per cent; Sinn Féin got 6.9 per cent, an increase of 0.4 per cent.

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© 2007 Irish Republican News