We are now halfway through the election campaign (voting is on February 26) and the only thing certain is that we are headed for another coalition government. The only question is who will be in it.
The most recent opinion poll last weekend shows that the two parties that make up the present coalition government are both slipping. Fine Gael was on 28 percent, down three. Labour was on eight percent, down two. At that level of support they would have great difficulty getting back into power, even with the backing of one of the new small parties in the Dail (probably the Social Democrats) and a few independents.
Even if they did pull that off, it would be inherently unstable with so many different views involved, from left to right. That could mean we would be back to the situation we had in 1981/’82 when we had three elections in quick succession, which is not something voters would want.
That is why this past weekend has seen renewed speculation that the most likely next government is a historic coalition between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, finally bringing to an end the Civil War divide in Irish politics. At the moment that looks like the only combination that would have the numbers to form a stable government.
Of course both parties are vehemently denying this could ever happen. But that's just for public consumption to maximize their vote.
The reality is that they are both center right parties and there is very little difference between them on economics or social affairs or anything else. And the original great divider -- the 1921 Treaty that partitioned Ireland and resulted in the Civil War -- has not been relevant since the Anglo Irish Agreement of 1985 when the Irish people accepted there can never be a united Ireland until a majority of people in the North decide they want it.
From then on, any differences between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have been contrived rather than real. It's a very long time since anyone in Fianna Fail made one of those fiery speeches on reuniting Ireland that used to be their bread and butter in the old days.1916 Rising. That would be very attractive and could be presented at home and abroad as the beginning of a new era for Ireland.
It's hard to see who would oppose it, apart from a few diehards mainly on the Fianna Fail side (the real Republican Party, as they used to call it).
Talking of Republicans, last weekend's poll saw a three point rise in support for Sinn Fein, bringing them up to 20 percent, while Fianna Fail were up one point putting them on 18 percent.
Fianna Fail, of course, insist they will never form a coalition with the Shinners and even if they did, the combination would need extra support from independents which would be hard to find.
Close analysis of the figures in recent polls shows that Sinn Fein's increased support has come at the expense of the Labour Party and is concentrated largely in working class and deprived areas, driven by the anger of voters in these areas at the impact of austerity.
Thomas “Slab” Murphy, currently awaiting sentence by the Special Criminal Court on tax evasion charges, epitomizes the difficulty that Sinn Fein has in dealing with former IRA big names in the border area who in recent years have been up to their necks in smuggling and criminality and regard themselves as above the law.
Maybe they see it as their pay-off for supporting the ending of the IRA war. When Murphy's small farm which straddles the border was raided in 2006 police found a huge stash of cash in bin bags as well as a lot of incriminating documentation. Gerry Adams in the past few weeks has said repeatedly that Murphy is "a good Republican."
That was bad enough for voters. But Adams also repeated Sinn Fein's call for the abolition of the non-jury Special Criminal Court.
Voters here are well aware that the reason we need the court is because of intimidation of juries by Republicans and drug gang thugs.
What happened during the trial that followed the murder of Detective Garda Jerry McCabe in Limerick by an IRA outfit is just one example. And after the murders in Dublin last week, finding anyone here willing to serve on a jury in a trial of members of drug gangs would be very difficult.
Sinn Fein may present themselves as "normal” politicians, but voters continue to be wary of them for these reasons. They will do well in the upcoming election, but only up to a limited level.
Why the two government parties are not doing well is no mystery. Their claim to have rescued the country after the financial crash is being treated with some skepticism by voters who know well that it was the discipline imposed by the Troika that set us on the path to recovery.
Equally, their attempt to buy the election with billions of euros from future growth has undermined their claim to be the only ones who can be trusted to run the economy responsibly and "keep the recovery going."
The reason that Fianna Fail has recovered somewhat is due to an understanding by voters that although they were in power when the economy was "wrecked,” the chances are that if Fine Gael had been in power the same crisis might have happened anyway. They were all calling for extra spending at the time, so voters may conclude now that there is not much difference really between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.
Even after the crash when Fianna Fail was decimated by the voters in the 2011 election, the party still held on to core support of over 17 percent. Given that the blame game against them is no longer working so well, they could recover many of the voters who deserted them then and in the election may well get much more than the 18 percent they got in last weekend's poll and finish well ahead of Sinn Fein. They won't do well enough to lead an alternative coalition, but they may do enough to cause a stalemate.
The other reason Fine Gael is not doing so well is the growing awareness here that any promises made on the basis of fiscal space (money that may become available from future growth here) will be dependent on a healthy global economy, something that looks very unreliable at the moment. More than 85 percent of Irish exports are due to multi-national companies here, a worrying statistic given the uncertainty these companies now face in the global market.
There are also worrying unknowns in Europe that could impact on us. The Italian banks are on the verge of a Greek-style crisis, and contagion from that could spread across Europe. And there is the real possibility that Britain may exit the EU (the so-called Brexit) which would create serious problems for us.
For all these reasons the idea of running an election based on promises of enormous tax cuts and extra spending here over the next few years is, frankly, ridiculous -- and the voters here know it.
That is why, halfway through the campaign, we have a virtual stalemate and an unusual degree of skepticism and even boredom among voters. It's very hard to see how the present government parties can claw their way back, given how much they have blown their credibility.
Labour, in particular, face a real problem because of the backlash in their traditional areas over austerity and because Sinn Fein have cynically stolen their support on the ground, opposing not only water charges but property tax as well (that has to be a first for a supposedly left wing party!)
It's not impossible yet for the present government to regain power, but it looks very difficult. A hung Dail and more elections may be ahead.