ALISON O'CONNOR: Fine Gael and Labour are not singing from the same hymn sheet heading toward the General Election

Enda Kenny and Joan Burton, with the Department of An Taoiseach staff choir. Picture: Gareth Chaney Collins

There are two parties heading into a general election looking to cut each other off at the knees, if necessary, writes Alison O’Connor

THE Fine Gaelers are full of taspy. The senior coalition partner might deny it publicly, but the blood is up, and brimming.

The trend, as they will tell you, is their friend, in terms of political polls going in their favour, and by polling day they will believe they have done all they possibly can to achieve an historic re-election. There was no election last November and the predicted disasters did not happen. In fact, a 2016 campaign is proving to be the correct decision thus far.

A momentum is growing. There are all sorts of reasons why a Fine Gael overall majority won’t be achieved, but there is a sense of it in the political air, and not just because Labour is warning of the consequences of such a thing happening.

Psychologically, the two coalition partners enter the fray in very different states. Fine Gael just want to hear that starting whistle, so they can wow the country with what they see as their slick messages on economic competence and stability.

They can feel the prize of an historic second term in government, with Enda Kenny as Taoiseach. “It’s the economy and people want more of it,” is how one party strategist summed it up.

If you think you heard a lot about Enda’s five-point plan the last time, well, you will be sick to the back teeth of the new message, which centres around stability, creating more jobs, making it pay to work, and having the money to invest in crucial services.

If the party’s plan is successful, your toddler will be able to recite this back to you by the end of the election.

The party strategists are majoring in ‘message discipline’, and we should expect to hear them sounding like the Sinn Feiners did at the height of the peace process, in terms of singing from identical hymn sheets.

There was a definite hiccup a few weeks ago, with Minister for Children James Reilly going off on one in terms of abortion. It drove the Taoiseach crazy, but then he serendipitously parked the issue for the election campaign, in a proposed Citizens’ Assembly.

There is lot of pride, and not a little arrogance, milling around in the FG nest, which does make one think of the potential for a fall, but they have reasonably good grounds for optimism. Fine Gael also have an election budget of €1.7m, much of it thanks to the party’s national draw, which raised €1m, at €80 a ticket. The party has no borrowings.

On the other side, Labour are coming across as skittish and reactive, and looking as if they would be well capable of doing something foolish and rash.

The Fine Gael side is taking a slightly benign attitude to Labour and the manner in which the smaller party is attempting to outdo it in election offerings, or is reacting critically to FG proposals. Labour is managing, as one FG’er put it, to give a lot of air time to FG proposals.

But the claim and counter claim are not presenting as a unified front, but as two parties heading into a general election looking to cut each other off at the knees, if necessary.

Then, within Labour you have a leader and a deputy leader who are reported to be anything but unified, so it is impossible to see how that relationship will change for the positive in the next few weeks. How will such a bad dynamic impact in any way but negatively on the party’s campaign?

In the past, inter-party sniping didn’t matter so much, because we were so used to a combative relationship between the coalition partners. For instance, if Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats began presenting a united electoral front, we would have immediately assumed there was something wrong behind the scenes.

It was hilarious to see former PD leader, Michael McDowell, shimmying up a pole in central Ranelagh to put up a poster warning of the dangers of allowing Fianna Fáil back into Government on their own without the PDs to perform a watchdog function.

But over the past five years Fine Gael and Labour have presented a largely united front. While we have heard of occasions when Labour came close to pulling the plug, these were not played out in public. It may be the stuff of campaigning, but it strikes a discordant note, now, to see them squabbling. It also eats away at that message that they have been selling of the two parties getting harmoniously back into government to keep us on the right economic path.

In the white heat of a general election campaign, this sort of behaviour is only going to get more tetchy, and possibly downright nasty, unless, of course, Labour gets a momentum going and begins to recover in the polls.

This is not an impossibility, especially given how risk-averse Irish people are after the economic crash, and the scar tissue we all bear after the years of austerity. When it comes to the undecided voters, the Government has established that though people are cheesed off with them, they are far more likely to give their vote to Fine Gael, Labour or Fianna Fáil than to a left-wing party or candidate.

With the exception of Sinn Féin, the failure of the left-wingers, such as the Anti Austerity Alliance, to make themselves seem like government material, has assisted this cause no end.

Independents can expect to do well, although not as well as it looked a year ago, and, as of now, it is impossible to predict the fates of small new parties, like Renua and the Social Democrats, until we are in the campaign proper, and even then it won’t be easy.

Fine Gael does not believe that Fianna Fáil is performing as lamely as its recent newspaper poll results would have us believe, although the situation in Dublin remains very poor for the party. We are likely to see serious FG attacks on FF in the coming weeks, with lots of reminders on what a power-hungry lot they are, and how they “wrecked the economy”.

In turn, we will see lots of attacks on the Government, not least for its appalling record on health. But unless something radical changes, this line of criticism is unlikely to cause too much trouble in terms of popularity. What goes on in our health services doesn’t seem to matter overly to the Irish voters in a general-election situation. That is a strange fact, isn’t it?

So, lets enjoy these last couple of days, post-the-festive-season, because, from next week on, all political hell will be breaking loose.

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