JUSTICE minister Michael McDowell's hardline stance against Sinn Féin has been challenged by leading PD members who believe the attacks are a "waste of time".

A number of speakers from the floor at last week's meeting of the party's local election candidates ? which was also attended by TDs and senators ? openly questioned McDowell's attacks on Sinn Féin.

They argued that the PDs' real rival for votes was Fine Gael and that this should be the focus of any future attacks from leading party members.

The speakers pleaded with the leadership not to waste time targeting Sinn Féin.

However, party leader Mary Harney strongly backed McDowell's stance on Sinn Féin, stating that those things had to be said. She also said that the PDs stood for Republicanism in the traditional egalitarian, liberal sense.

There are mixed views in political circles about McDowell's aggressive criticism of Sinn Féin. Some politicians believe that there is a need for someone to highlight Sinn Féin's paramilitary links and that it is necessary to constantly remind voters of those links. However, other political commentators have speculated that the attacks may have only succeeded in glamourising Sinn Féin, particularly among younger voters.

The concerns of PD members would appear to be more pragmatic. "When Fine Gael goes up, we go down and vice versa. They must be our target, " one party source said.

Overall, the mood at the meeting ? which was attended by the majority of the party's local election candidates ? was described by sources as "reflective" but positive, without any fingerpointing or apportioning of blame.

Both McDowell and the Tánaiste addressed the meeting and accepted that the local election results had been disappointing.

However, Harney vowed that there would no turning back on the party's reforming agenda, particularly in the health services, which required a shake-up. That must be done even if it required taking on vested interests, the Tánaiste said, adding that the party must not lose its nerve.

There was an acceptance that the PDs' decision not to run any Euro election candidates had been a mistake.

The decision to run local election candidates across the country ? rather than opting for a more concentrated approach ? was defended as necessary and important by the leadership. The issue of decentralisation was also raised by a number of speakers.

At least one speaker spoke of the need for the party to portray a softer image, sources said.