There is an air of unreality about the Irish election campaign in general. Parties are issuing promises to cut taxes and increase welfare spending but the value of their manifestos is deeply uncertain because none of them will have enough seats in the next Dáil to form a government on their own.
Since at least one other party will be needed to form a coalition government, there will inevitably be compromise as they struggle to agree a common program.
The economy is doing a good deal better than when the Fine Gael-Labour coalition took power after the last election in 2011, but something is missing and the public just doesn't seem to have much confidence in the outgoing government.
Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach (prime minister) Enda Kenny can claim to have led Ireland through a very difficult few years and his argument that we are now in a much better place financially and economically is not lacking in substance.
But he has a propensity to make silly mistakes such as his notorious anecdote at a gathering of European politicians on the possibility of the Irish Army going on standby to protect the automated teller machines of the banks, when the financial and economic crisis was at its height.
He has also acquired an image of a man who is wary of getting into debates with his opponents for fear that his level of knowledge and understanding of the issues may be found wanting. A policy wonk he definitely isn't, although he has a great deal of energy and drive. When others are about to collapse from exhaustion, Kenny is still shaking hands and greeting people with warmth and enthusiasm.
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His deputy in the outgoing government, Labour Party leader Joan Burton, generally has a better grasp of detail and can be formidable in debate on policy issues. She replaced Eamon Gilmore as head of the party and Tánaiste (deputy prime minister) after Labour's disastrous showing in the mid-term local and European elections of May 2014.
Things were supposed to improve for Labour under the new leader, but the party remains in the doldrums. The question for Labour was: how do we improve our standing in the opinion polls and ensure that we retain most of our 33 seats in the outgoing parliament?
For all her undoubted ability, Burton wasn't the answer. Labour is facing a potential wipe-out and she herself is waging an uphill struggle to hold onto her own Dáil seat in the constituency of Dublin West.
The star performer in media terms in this election is Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, who has a ready answer for all the questions put to him. He was at his best during the launch of his party's manifesto in Dublin, although there was a very strange aspect to the occasion. Despite being accompanied by a range of Fianna Fáil candidates at this major media event, he did all the talking. It was surprising also that his front bench did not appear alongside him for the occasion.
Yet the prospect of an unprecedented coalition between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil after the Irish general election looms closer with the latest opinion poll findings. A survey conducted by the Red C company for the Sunday Business Post casts further doubt on the chances of the outgoing Fine Gael-Labour administration getting re-elected on Feb 26.
The two parties which make up the current government dropped a total of five percentage points. Fine Gael went down from 31 to 28 percent while Labour fell from ten down to eight percent. Sinn Féin rose from 17 to 20 percent despite a barrage of criticism from opponents over the party's call for the abolition of the non-jury Special Criminal Court. Fianna Fáil went up one point to 18 percent.
The combined total of Fine Gael and Labour at 36 percent indicates that the two parties could be far short of a majority when the newly-elected Dáil Éireann, the main house of the Irish parliament, meets for the first time on March 10.
However, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil between them stand at 46 percent in the Red C poll, which suggests that these parties would have a comfortable majority if they combined to form a government after the election.
These two parties trace their origins to the bitter divisions that arose in the Irish Civil War of 1922-23. Their present-day leaders have rejected the prospect of uniting to form a coalition administration, but many observers believe there could well be a change of heart after the general election.
At the launch of the Fine Gael election manifesto in Dublin, I asked the Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader, Enda Kenny, if there were any circumstances in which he would go into government with Fianna Fáil?
He replied that he did not contemplate any circumstances in which such a partnership would take place. He was pressed on the issue by other journalists and, when asked if he would personally rule out serving as Taoiseach in such an arrangement, he said: "I do not contemplate doing business with Fianna Fáil."
The conclusion to be drawn from his remarks was that he did not anticipate such a set of circumstances arising, but Kenny failed to give a specific commitment that he would never participate in such a partnership. In other words, the door appeared to be left open, however slightly.
Interestingly, the Fine Gael leader suggested that as the centenary of the Civil War approaches, there ought to be a commemoration which included both sides in the conflict and drew a line under those terrible events.
Earlier in the day, a report in the Irish edition of the Sunday Times quoted former Fianna Fáil deputy leader, Mary O'Rourke as supporting a coalition with Fine Gael, even if her own party was smaller in numbers, but providing that ministerial positions were divided on a 50-50 basis.
Meanwhile, Sinn Fein has been rising in the polls, even though Gerry Adams is rarely at ease in the media spotlight. In an interview on RTE's "This Week" radio program, the Sinn Féin leader came across as poorly-prepared on the implications of his party's policy of abolishing household water charges.
Much of the campaign has been taken up with Sinn Féin's opposition to the Special Criminal Court, which operates with three judges but no jury. It is meant to deal with a situation where it is felt that juries might be intimidated in certain cases, usually involving alleged crimes of violence.
Given the recent horrific incidents of gangland crime in Dublin, other parties have seized on Sinn Féin's stance to suggest that Adams and co. are weak on law and order issues, which is a polite way of implying that they are unreconstructed terrorists.
Included as part of the onslaught is the support given by Sinn Féin leaders to the prominent republican Thomas 'Slab' Murphy, from the border area of South Armagh and Louth, who is due to be sentenced for tax evasion by the Special Criminal Court on Election Day, Feb 26. Sinn Féin's position is that a case concerned with tax issues should be tried before a jury.
The Red C poll suggests that Adams and his party have not suffered damage politically because of this controversy – quite the opposite as their numbers went up.
But the seriousness of the current crime situation was underlined by the fact that, only a hundred yards from where the Fine Gael election manifesto was launched in Dublin's north inner city, heavily-armed police were on checkpoint duty to prevent a further outbreak of gangland violence.
NOTE: Deaglán de Bréadún's book 'Power Play: The Rise of Modern Sinn Féín' is published by Merrion Press.
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