ALISON O'CONNOR: There is a sense that Fine Gael would abandon economic caution simply to get back into power

A general election machine can be so well-oiled that it can slip out of your hands before the campaign has even begun, writes Alison O’Connor

That is what has happened to Fine Gael. The irony cannot be lost on them that, five years after they won a significant general election victory as a result of Fianna Fail’s massive mishandling of the economy, they are beginning to sound just like the fiscally dodgy outfit.

If there is such as thing as over-preparing for an election, Fine Gael is in that territory; add to that their hubris. It has not been the best of starts.

They might improve their lot by sending out an edict to all ministers and party members to ban that ridiculous phrase, ‘the fiscal space’, which, if memory serves me, was first introduced to our national lexicon by Finance Minister Michael Noonan, who has, by now, become addicted to its use.

At Fine Gael’s first press conference of the campaign, on Wednesday, in a Dublin hotel, it was not my impression that the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, wasn’t able to explain how the party had done its sums, but that he recognised (or his focus groups had told him) that people were sick of hearing a phrase that most of us think is a nonsense, and which does not explain what the speaker means.

The Taoiseach then invited his finance minister to elaborate on economic prospects, and, within a mere matter of seconds, the dreaded phrase was out of his mouth.

I’ve got a total bee in my bonnet about it now, and think there should be an outright ban for the next three weeks. It reeks of politicians patronising us, and making like they know far better than we do what to do with our money.

The fiscal space is all about how much of our money the next government may have available for tax cuts and spending increases, so it’s what will be in the national purse or kitty.

But Fine Gael make it sound like a space where the air is rarified and only they have control of what goes on there.

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Combine this with their pledge to ditch the universal social charge, and the recently introduced notion of a ‘rainy day’ fund.

This fund has definitely been subject to some climate change, and by Wednesday’s first press conference Mr Noonan had said it would be used in the later years of the next government for capital investment if the economy slowed down.

This is not where the Government wanted, or expected, to be at the beginning of this campaign. The Irish Times/MRBI poll, published yesterday, further freaked them out, with the party pitched at 28%, down two points. I like to think that Irish people are ‘having a moment’, that they are putting the brakes on the Government, Fine Gael in particular, and making it clear that second-rate sums and assumptions are just not going to fly in this campaign.

People, I imagine, are seeing the contradiction in being told, as the Taoiseach told us, that “it is no time to mess” with the economy, even as there is an increasing sense that Fine Gael would abandon economic caution simply to get back into power.

I am hoping that people are realising what we went through during the austerity years, and that the party that has portrayed itself as the “responsible parent” now needs a little bit of a reality check.

The Government acknowledged all along that, when its comes to voting, they expect the citizens who give preferment to Fine Gael and Labour candidates to do so without any affection, and while holding their nose.

If that is how most voters do approach it, then it does not leave much wriggle room for forgiving the Government for any campaign slip-up or apparent lack of humility.

So, despite their best hopes, Fine Gael have begun this highly anticipated campaign without any sense of momentum behind them, and Labour remains in a woeful position, registering 7% in yesterday’s poll.

However, it is far too early to start writing anyone in or out. The campaign is finally here and always brings its own momentum. Fianna Fail must be feeling rather pleased with themselves, given their good show in yesterday’s poll (21%, up two) and their solid, if unspectacular, campaign lift-off. But they could do without the ghosts of election past, such as former minister Dermot Ahern throwing in his thruppence worth on what the party should do post-election. This is not helpful.

Sinn Fein (19%, down two) may be less pleased, and may as well resign themselves to the Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy issue hanging over them like a bad smell for the campaign. The party is becalmed, and while it may point to the Right2Change movement as a way of increasing its support, this idea currently seems rather fanciful. But, like the FFers, they will be smug in the knowledge that they are currently in a better place than the Government.

It is worth reflecting on how much has changed since the general election of 2011. If the polls are to be believed, we are looking at a hung Dáil. We need to reflect long and hard on that and what it would mean for a country that still has its economic stabilisers on, as far as the rest of the world is concerned.

There is still a strong show in the polls for those who say they will be voting Independent (25%, up two), and this, the Government parties insist, is support that is as soft as putty and ripe for persuasion, not to forget the sizable number of people who say they have not yet decided how they will vote. There is a lot up for grabs.

A word of caution for all of those who wish to canvas our votes over the next few weeks. As I type, we are hardly two days into the campaign and already there is a sense of weariness at the mostly male voices shouting over each other and barking insults over the airwaves.

Granted, this is a far more crowded field than we have ever had before in an election, but there is no better way to turn people off than to give them a headache as they tune in to see whose argument they might find the most persuasive.

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