The election campaign in the 26 Counties is heating up with just over a week left to polling day.

A live television debate takes place on Thursday between the 26-County Prime Minister, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, and the leader of the largest opposition party, Fine Gael’s Enda Kenny.

The campaign has finally moved away from the ‘Bertiegate’ scandal over the Taoiseach’s personal finances. A statement by Mr Ahern setting out a context in which he received payments from a wealthy businessman in connection with a house he later purchased was accepted by his coalition partners, the Progressive Democrats.

The latest opinion poll shows support for Fianna Fail has fallen by three points, to 35 per cent over three weeks. Support for Fine Gael has risen by three points to 26 per cent, while Labour has gone up one point to 13 per cent.

The Progressive Democrats have fallen one point to 3 per cent, while the Greens stand at 5 per cent, down one point. Sinn Féin are at 10 per cent, up two points, while Independents feature with 8 per cent.

Sinn Féin could find themselves in the position of king-maker following the election. The party is likely to make gains, particularly in Dublin and Donegal, with excellent prospects in other areas.

Sinn Féin has accused other political parties in the 26 Counties of engaging in a futile attempt to “limit our growth” by rejecting them as potential coalition partners even before voters go to the polls on May 24.

Two political parties, Fianna Fail and Labour, have appeared to rule out any chance of entering government with Sinn Féin following the election.

“Saying they would not form a government with Sinn Féin is yet another position that all the establishment parties in Leinster House have in common,” said Sinn Féin Dail leader Caoimhghin O Caolain.

“Their main purpose is to limit our growth and to make it seem to the electorate that we are irrelevant to the pre-election debate. But that is emphatically not the case.”

Party president Gerry Adams continued on the campaign trail this week, travelling to the south east where he canvassed with candidates John Dwyer in Wexford and David Cullinane in Waterford.

Speaking at the launch of the party’s education manifesto, Sinn Féin education spokesman Sean Crowe said the party would “end the practice of school league tables”.

In government, the party would prioritise tackling educational disadvantage.

“Current Government policy has entrenched educational inequalities. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are still hugely under-represented at third-level - 90 per cent of children from a professional background go to college, compared with only 20 per cent of those whose parents work in skilled or semi-skilled jobs,” he said.

He also pointed out that only 7 per cent of the estimated 500,000 adults with literacy problems receive tuition.

Sinn Féin is opposing State support for fee-paying secondary schools. Mr Crowe also said the notion of free education was a myth as parents bear the cost of registration charges and expensive textbooks. More than 80 per cent of school computer equipment was paid for not by the State but by fundraising by schools and parents, he added.

Sinn Féin also says it does not support the return of tuition fees for full-time third-level students, despite concerns that the abolition of fees amounts to a subsidy to the middle class. Mr Crowe said the party would move to abolish fees for part-time students as part of a general drive to widen access.

Meanwhile, an 18-page policy document by Fianna Fail pledges that, if returned to government, the party would press for a single all-island corporation tax rate of 12.5 per cent to stimulate economic growth in Northern Ireland.

An anti-sectarianism fund for projects in “flashpoint and interface areas” would be set up. The party would also seek the “permanent removal” of British troops from the streets of the Six Counties, and call the full decommissioning of loyalist and ‘dissident’ republican weapons.

The document says Fianna Fail would also “maintain a focus on the issue of collusion in our contacts with the British government” and establish a “transparent mechanism” to deal with all outstanding matters in relation to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings of 1974.

* Sinn Féin candidate and TD for Kerry North Martin Ferris has been cleared of a potential drink-driving charge after a test showed that he was under the legal limit when stopped at a police checkpoint late last month.

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