As we enter into the final week of what has been, so far at least, a flat and turgid election campaign; a few things are becoming increasingly clear.
The first, and most important, is that there is no route available for this government to be re-elected.
At the start of this campaign I predicted (on Twitter) that Fine Gael would win about 62 seats and Labour would get 15 or so.
With these numbers and the help of a number of not unfriendly independent TDs, the outgoing government could have been able to secure a bare majority and return to office.
After two weeks it is clear that Fine Gael is not within spitting distance of breaking the 60 seat mark, while Labour will be lucky to struggle into double digits.
However, the problem is not how far short the two parties are of reaching the magic figure of 79, the issue now is how the Labour Party can even countenance going into government with Fine Gael after receiving the shellacking that is likely coming to it.
The Dublin West constituency poll suggesting that the Labour Leader was set to lose her Dáil seat is indicative of bad things could potentially get for Labour in the capital.
Some pundits and commentators are already speculating that Labour will be wiped out in Dublin, potentially leaving the party with as few as seven seats.
Though I don’t agree with this forecast, when you go through the forty Dáil constituencies it is hard to see Labour get much more than 10, or maybe even 12 at a major push.
How could a party that has seen its message so roundly rejected and its Dail presence so drastically cut even consider going back into office?
The question is which of its surviving TDs will be first to state the obvious and how big a row will ensue as the members tell the leadership that it’s time to cut its ties with Fine Gael.
The sooner (after the count) that row starts, the sooner it can be settled and what remains of the Irish Labour party commences the long process of healing and rebuilding itself from the opposition benches.
At the risk of rubbing salt deep into Labour wounds, just consider how different a situation they would now be facing Labour if they had decided to go into opposition back in 2011?
If they had gone into opposition, they would – as the biggest party by far – have clearly led that opposition. In that position, they would have relegated Fianna Fáil and Michéal Martin into minor bit players over the past five years and made the Fianna Fáil party effectively irrelevant.
Remember how effective and cutting Gilmore had been in opposition to Fianna Fáil – and just imagine how even more damaging he would have been in opposition to Enda Kenny.
Those ‘Gilmore for Taoiseach’ posters that looked so conceited and presumptive back in 2011 would by now signal the only alternative to Enda Kenny and Fine Gael.
Even Sinn Féin would have been struggling to set out its anti-austerity stall, as the main opposition Labour party stole a march and led the campaign against Irish Water. Recall Sinn Féin’s early difficulties deciding whether or not its TDs would pay water charges?
By going into government with Fine Gael, Gilmore has succeeded in condemning his party to probably a decade of regrouping and rebuilding – at least old stalwarts like Quinn, Rabbitte and Howlin will have good memories of a few more years in office.
FG/FF Not On The Cards
Anyone in Fianna Fáil, and I doubt there are very many, seriously entertaining any notions of going into government with Fine Gael should, as they say in examination papers “compare and contrast” how going into government has treated Labour.
The chances of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael going into government together after this election are nil, zilch, nada, none. Why would Fianna Fáil prop up Enda and his faltering Fine Gael party after the public have rejected them?
Just as importantly, why would Fianna Fáil cross the floor to take over Labour’s junior role and leave the leadership of the opposition to Gerry Adams and Sinn Féin.
The lure of ministerial office may be attractive to a handful of Fianna Fáil TDs, but anywhere up to 17 of the party’s new TDs will be first timers and won’t be keen to limit their Dáil careers to a single term – as is about to happen to many of the 2011 FG and Labour intake.
It is also worth noting that Fianna Fáil will require a special Árd Fheis to decide to go into government and the membership have no appetite for such a deal.
Indeed, Michéal Martin would be well advised to move quickly to call a special Árd Fheis soon after the election results are clear to secure a clear mandate instructing him not to enter office and prop up a party that has just been defeated.
Can Fine Gael Still Save Itself?
As with any punditry, most of my analysis in this piece is been based on presumption and supposition. So, what happens if Fine Gael strategists succeed in mounting a last minute surge over the coming days and revive its fortunes?
It is hard to see what the party can say or do to achieve this. Fine Gael’s problems are not just presentational – they are fundamental. And they will not be solved by putting Leo, Michael, Simon Mór nó Simon Beag out on the TV and radio more.
Their campaign strategy is built on two flawed pillars.
The first is a profound misreading of the public mood in offering them a raft of tax cuts, including the scrapping of USC. They cannot square their 5 year claim to prudence with their election splurge.
The second is putting a recovery – that over 50% of the public say has not reached them – at the centre of their messaging.
In effect, they have turned this election into a referendum on that recovery, a strategy that was bound to backfire when so many people feel the recovery is something is happening to someone else.
At core is a misleading conceit. Fine Gael and Labour’s 2011 campaigns did not win that election. It had already been won by Fine Gael and Labour as early as late 2009.
Their strategists may have picked the colours for the posters and decided the identity of the candidates here and there, but the reality is that there was no way they could have lost the 2011 election.
It is worth recalling that those same strategists to whom so many are now looking for inspiration, are the ones who thought (and feared) that Fianna Fáil might still make a last minute comeback in late 2010 – hence their frenzy of last minute and unnecessary 2011 promises.
As with all elections, there will be some last minute surprises and some Lazarus moments from TDs whom everyone had written off, but as it stands today – with only seven days to go from the close of polling, this FG/Lab government is on its last legs.
In conclusion, the real questions to be considered after polling day are likely to be:
- Will the Dáil we are about to elect will have the capacity to form a Government; and
- How significant and influential a role will President Michael D Higgins have in the weeks, and perhaps even months, after the new Dáil convenes on Thursday March 10th.
Expect no shortage of drama, cliff hanging and lashings of false and ultimately unproductive negotiation.