Irish PM's party strengthens poll lead as elections near

Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny speaks at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) annual conference in London, Britain November 9, 2015. REUTERS/Toby Melville (Reuters)

DUBLIN (Reuters) - Support for Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny's Fine Gael rose sharply in an opinion poll on Saturday to comfortably put the center-right party in front of its rivals across all major polls ahead of upcoming elections. With voters likely to go to the polls in February or March, backing for Fine Gael rose five percentage points to 31 percent in the Sunday Times/Behaviour & Attitudes poll, the closest it has come in three years to its 2011 election mark of 36 percent. It also meant it is now polling at between 28 and 31 percent according to each of Ireland's four main pollsters. Fine Gael's nearest rival in Saturday's survey was fellow center-right party Fianna Fail, whose support fell one point to 19 percent. Kenny's junior coalition partner Labour rose one point to 9 percent but its collapse in support over unpopular budget cuts implemented before the economy turned around means the parties, who want to be re-elected together, would remain shy of a majority according to the polls. Leftist challenger Sinn Fein suffered the largest fall, dropping to 17 percent from 21 percent, its worst showing in two years before the coalition parties recovered alongside an economy that is set to be the fastest growing in Europe for a second successive year. (Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Sandra Maler)