Gangland killings, two in a few days, have suddenly become the centerpiece of the Irish election as violent crime races to the top of the agenda.

A drugs war between two rival gangs ended in a further killing on Monday night when Eddie Hutch Senior, brother of reputedly notorious crime lord Gerry “The Monk” Hutch was gunned down in his home despite extra police security in the city.

The Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald described the killing as “deplorable and ruthless.”

The chief suspect is said to be alleged international drugs trafficker Christy Kinahan, whose criminal enterprise reportedly operates out of Spain. Last week the Kinahan gang was attacked by the Hutch gang in a Dublin hotel and one man was killed, leading to the latest feud.

Regency hotel murder - astonishing photos emerge of 'transvestite' gunman fleeing the scene

— (@Independent_ie) February 7, 2016
Minister Fitzgerald said the “fatal shooting in Dublin is another deplorable example of the ruthlessness of gangland criminal.”

She continued “It seems that some gangs are intent on waging a feud where human life counts for nothing.”

The impact on the Irish general election will be considerable with lawlessness considered a prime issue to begin with. Now with bullets flying and Irish police unable to stop the feud it will become a major issue between the parties.

Sinn Fein may have the most difficulty with the issue and Enda Kenny has been quick to point out their own violent associations in the past and say they cannot be trusted in government. Sinn Fein for their part say Fine Gael have made police job cuts an unfortunate priority and the force needs badly to be strengthened.

Overall then the Irish general election is hotting-up and it looks like there will be no clear and decisive outcome after voting takes place on Friday, Feb 26. For a leader who appeared to hold all the aces in the card-game, Taoiseach Enda Kenny screwed-up badly at the start of his campaign and will need to recover lost ground.

Meanwhile, his coalition partners at present, the Labour Party, is also in difficulty surrounding controversial comments by their deputy leader Alan Kelly.

Having announced the election in Dáil Éireann, Kenny left the chamber in less than a minute and without giving opposition leaders a chance to respond. It was a bizarre episode.

He clearly didn't want political rivals getting free publicity and, of course, Micheál Martin of Fianna Fáil and Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin would have seized the opportunity to launch a sharp attack on the outgoing government.

But that's how democracy works and Kenny's action was seen as insulting to the main house of the Irish parliament on the last day of a five-year term. Irish people like their prime ministers to show respect for an institution which was hard-won through the 1916 Rising and subsequent War of Independence. Many of the young people who died in those years would have been forebears, in political and/or family terms, of the current Fine Gael party.

For one of the most successful heads of government Ireland has seen in a long time, the man from Mayo is strangely lacking in self-confidence. At a press conference later in the day, he balked at answering a question about Fine Gael's economic policy. I was there and it looked very much as if Kenny was wary of getting into deep water where he might find himself floundering and maybe pleading for help.

It is about the only feature Enda Kenny and Gerry Adams have in common. The Sinn Féin president has had some unhappy media encounters on economic issues and will never be Ireland's answer to Joseph Stiglitz or Paul Krugman. The Taoiseach relies heavily on his seasoned Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, a smooth Limerick Man who talks a good game, while Adams for his part depends on Sinn Féin's highly-articulate Finance Spokesperson, Pearse Doherty from Donegal.

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As if it couldn't get any worse, Kenny did not appear on the main RTE news bulletin that evening at six o'clock when other leaders were putting their case. This may have been the result of a mix-up rather than a deliberate decision, but it looked bad and the impression came across that the Taoiseach was fearful of the media spotlight.

Yet this is the man who has a fair chance of becoming the first leader of the Fine Gael party to be returned to the office of Taoiseach after a general election. His supporters are fond of proclaiming that when he took over from Brian Cowen in 2011, he inherited an economy that had fallen into ruins under the outgoing Fianna Fáil-Green Party administration.

Five years on, the Fine Gael and Labour partners in government boast of having led us through the desert to the promised land and their message is that if we don't give them another term in office the economic recovery will be put in serious danger. A constant theme is that we shouldn't trust Fianna Fáil, who made a mess of things in the past , or Sinn Féin, whose policies would destroy the economy in the future.

Such was the level of controversy a few months ago on a whole range of issues concerning Gerry Adams and his party that it looked as if the entire election would be about "SF" (for Sin Féin) but now the main topic of debate is "FS" (for Fiscal Space). This is a phrase that was barely mentioned until very recently but, since the campaign started, it has been the main issue, day in and day out.

Fiscal Space is the economic equivalent of "wiggle room", the amount of spare cash that could be available to the next government to cover tax cuts, spending on welfare increases and other public programs or projects, provided the economy grows at an average of three percent annually over the next five years.

There has been disagreement between parties over the figure involved, with estimates varying from €8.6 to €12 billion or $9.6 to $13.4 billion. That's a modest amount in US terms but a vast sum for a small state like the Republic of Ireland. Unusually, for a party that gets little positive media coverage, Sinn Féin were adjudged by respected journalists to have been the only ones to do the math properly from the start and opt for what is deemed to be the correct figure of €8.6bn.

Gerry Adams on the high moral ground is a rare sight in Irish politics, but he took the opportunity to declare at a press conference that the other major parties had been "caught out cooking the books" and he called on them to withdraw their manifestos because they were based on false figures.

He was speaking at the launch of Sinn Féin's election campaign in the Royal Irish Academy on Dublin's Dawson Street. There are several institutions in the Republic which retain the word "royal" in their titles although it is worth pointing out that a former president of the RIA, John Kells Ingram (1823-1907) was the author of the famous ballad, "Who Fears to Speak of '98?" in memory of the 1798 rebellion.

The latest opinion polls at time of writing have Sinn Féin at 17 to 21 percent which is considerably higher than the 9.9 percent achieved in the last general election five years ago and suggests it will increase its Dáil representation from the current 14 seats to around 24 or perhaps more. Small wonder, then, that the mood at the SF launch was quite upbeat.

The tone of Labour's campaign launch later that day was rather somber by comparison. The party currently has 33 seats in Dáil Éireann, but the most positive poll finding at present suggests it will only have 15 when the votes are counted this time and, on a really bad day, could end up with fewer than ten.

There is considerable media focus on the personality of the party's deputy leader, Alan Kelly, who is Minister for the Environment in the outgoing government and does not mince his words or suffer fools gladly. Given that his leader, Joan Burton, is facing a very tough challenge in her Dublin West constituency, the Tipperary Man might end up replacing her after the election, but as head of a much-smaller party.

Given the ham-fisted start to Fine Gael's campaign and the likely heavy losses in store for Labour, the current coalition looks as if it will need to call on independent members of the new Dáil plus smaller, fringe parties to put a government together next time. The other main option could be a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil alliance, healing the Civil War divisions dating back to the early 1920s.

The next Dáil assembles on March 10, almost two weeks after the general election and it should be a fascinating game of parliamentary arithmetic as parties scramble for power. It's all to play for in Irish politics these days.

NOTE: Deaglán the Bréadún's latest book, "Power Play: The Rise of Modern Sinn Féin" is published by Merrion Press.

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