Micheál Martin signals his TDs to get out and hunt for SF votes…

You’d think that lagging 7 points behind Fine Gael in the latest B&A face-to-face poll would induce panic in the ranks of Fianna Fail, but I’m not picking that up. If anything, Micheál Martin looks like a man who has taken time out to carefully examine the battlefield.

I’m not sure I buy everything in Stephen Collins’ piece lauding Martin’s isolation of Sinn Fein. There’s little chance SF could “pursue a populist agenda and adopt the kind of policies that Hugo Chávez and his successors implemented in Venezuela”.

Collins sees this as a gamble:

By ruling it out, Martin has limited his room for manoeuvre in post-election negotiations, but it could help him in his ambition to restore Fianna Fáil to its position as the biggest party in the country.

Adopting a clear position on Sinn Féin should help protect Fianna Fáil from leaking support to Fine Gael during an election campaign.

The prospect of a deal with Adams or McDonald would certainly have the capacity to scare middle-class voters into the arms of Leo Varadkar, and to shore up Fine Gael’s recently acquired status as the biggest party in the country.

More importantly, even if the numbers do add up, a deal to form a government with Sinn Féin would prove a very dangerous embrace for Fianna Fáil.

Just look at how Sinn Féin gobbled up the SDLP after the Hume-Adams process – or how it is manipulating the political situation in the North, using the powersharing institutions established under the Belfast Agreement as pawns.

If it is a gamble then it is something that we are much not accustomed to see in Northern Ireland, where our parties prefer to hoard their political capital rather than spend it, never mind gamble with it.

If some FF TDs had been weakening, the Tom Oliver story provided them with a very cold reminder of what any political party would face if they ever chose to go into government with Sinn Fein.

If the next generation of Sinn Fein leaders backed the Adams line that it “would be totally and absolutely counterproductive” to seek convictions of the killers of Mr. Oliver, Martin took another opportunity to reiterate that…

…he will not do business with Sinn Féin after the next election even if Mary Lou McDonald becomes leader in the interim. “It is very clear whatever Gerry says, Mary Lou will say. It is fact,” Mr Martin said.

Some FF TDs with a large SF vote may have been seduced by the idea that if they’re nice to SF, they’ll get transfers. Experience in NI suggests the opposite is the case, and Martin’s clarity will force them now to campaign to take first rather than second preferences.

He’s also telling voters impatient for change on a range of social issues (of the type they actually seem to care about in the Republic), that voting for Sinn Fein will be a wasted vote.

Just as the river Lagan is easily jumped at the village of Finnis in a way it can’t be by the time it gets into Belfast, Martin has chosen to press his considerable advantages of scale sooner rather than later. [Hunter becomes the Hunted? – Ed] Aye, well, maybe.

After ten years of Sinn Fein in the top job, Northern Irish democracy has become a wasteland. Martin’s focus appears to be to make sure that the same thing doesn’t happen to the Republic.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty