Irish opposition leader ousted in party challenge

Former Irish Prime Minister John Bruton was ousted on Wednesday from his position as leader of Ireland's main opposition party Fine Gael, a post he had held for 10 years.

Bruton, 53, was defeated in a no-confidence motion tabled by Fine Gael frontbenchers Michael Noonan and Jim Mitchell, both of whom intend to run for leadership.

The party's 72-member parliamentary committee took a secret ballot after a meeting lasting more than seven hours, with media reports putting the vote at 39 to 33 against Bruton.

The challenge to Bruton, the second in three months, was triggered after a major domestic opinion poll showed a significant slump in support for him and his party.

Bruton had resisted calls to step down, strongly defending himself against claims by his challengers that he lacked charisma and was out of touch with the party's grass-roots voters.

But Bruton said afer the vote he accepted the decision of his party and would support his successor.

Bruton's removal clears the way for a leadership battle, with any new contenders expected to declare themselves before a party meeting next week.

Some analysts see the current upheaval over the Fine Gael leadership as an indication of long-term problems within the party.

"In a sense this outcome doesn't really matter - this challenge came about as a result of a long decline in the party's fortunes and a failure to capitalise on the misfortunes of the present government," Michael Laver, professor of politics at Trinity College Dublin, told Reuters.

Fine Gael, which thrived offering a liberal alternative in the staunchly Catholic Ireland of the early 1980s, had failed to reinvent its appeal for a fast-changing modern state with a booming economy, he said.

"The problem is what the party stands for today. What we're seeing is Fine Gael thrashing around wondering what to do and while changing the leader is a simple fix, it's probably not enough," Laver said.

Last week's opinion poll showed buoyant suppport for Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and his minority coalition government in the wake of a giveaway budget in December. But despite indications of increased popularity, Ahern said at the weekend he would not call a general election until mid-2002 - the last possible date.