An edgy wait to see who looks good on the Dáil dancefloor
Published 26/01/2016 | 02:30
Political parties have been so busy talking about who will pair off with who in government that they would put a hormone-fuelled teenage disco to shame. The truth is that the public is not overly concerned by such thoughts. However, for strategists it is very important. It is like setting out the ground rules so they can prepare their line of attack.
Fine Gael have a plan ready. It will suit them perfectly if this election becomes a head-to-head with Sinn Féin. FG know that they will not lose votes to Sinn Féin. If they do lose votes then it is likely to be to Fianna Fáil - perhaps some of the old FF vote that went to FG in 2011.
Fine Gael therefore suggest Fianna Fáil will go into government with the Sinn Féin. They believe that, if Fianna Fáil do hint that they are amenable to a deal, then FG can say that the only way for voters to ensure stability and block the Shinners is to vote Fine Gael. However, if Fianna Fáil run away from the suggestion, then the opposition is neatly divided and FF become completely irrelevant to the debate. Fine Gael can focus on the Sinn Féin bogeyman and Fianna Fáil become little more than another option for Fine Gael when the voting is done. The only risk to their plan is if Fianna Fáil can form some kind of credible opposition.
Sinn Féin would also love a head-to-head with Fine Gael. They too have hinted that Fianna Fáil might join them. Their reasoning is a little more complex. If Fianna Fáil spurn their advances then Adams and co believe - like Fianna Gael - that Fianna Fáil will then be irrelevant. They can continue the pitch to voters that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are actually the same, and that the only way to be different is to vote Sinn Féin. Any votes that SF have gained from Fianna Fáil will likely be solidified behind the party if FF starts down the road of attacking republicanism in the same way Fine Gael do.
On the other hand, if Micheál Martin is more open to Sinn Féin then it brings a host of opportunities. Sinn Féin knows that after the sharp rise in support post-2011 they have been become stuck. They are unable to convince centre-ground voters that they can be trusted. They need allies if they are to stop the portrayal of them as the 'bogeyman'. They know that in the early days of the peace process it was Fianna Fáil more than anyone that enabled Sinn Féin to be accepted and brought them into mainstream politics. It could be hoped this will be repeated. With Fianna Fáil at their side, SF could hope that centrist voters would finally look at them without being terrified.
Fianna Fáil are not used to all this attention. Traditionally they are the party everyone is against. However, they will now be tested to see if they have learned from observing other parties in the past. Fianna Fáil know that coalition with Fine Gael would give only a short-term boost for long-term doom. Both parties need only look at those who shout loudest for it to happen - they are people who either support other parties or dislike both FF and FG intensely. They can't close the door without being hypocrites, but they know there is no future in it. Fianna Fáil need to win back votes from Fine Gael and even a few from Labour. Attacking Sinn Féin will not get back voters lost to them.
So Fianna Fáil will show Fine Gael to be the enemy. They will ensure they are not irrelevant by continually goading FG into commenting on what FF says. They will try reminding the centre ground that FG are the enemy. They will not agree that they have a deal with Sinn Féin, and will say enough to point out the SF failings without closing the door. Fianna Fáil know that if people see them as a genuine alternative then they have a chance, and SF might not be a bad helper in that scenario. Crucially, Fianna Fáil know the difficulty in being a broad church and trying to keep people happy.
They know Sinn Féin need the centre to advance, but they will believe that when the time comes SF will lose some of its left-wing and hard-line support. This support still believes Sinn Féin to be revolutionary and will likely be disappointed as the party tries to advance politically. Such rows and frictions may in time cause some of the centre/left SF support to drift back to a 'friendly' Fianna Fáil if they can stay ahead in the polls.
All of these strategies have several possible outcomes. All of the strategists believe they will outwit their opponents and can control that outcome.
Meanwhile, Labour are still dazed, sitting just off the dancefloor knowing the painful truth: that the other players think they are anybody's when the time comes. Renua and the Social Democrats are still only getting to the club, hanging up their coats and straightening out their clothes in the hope they might be noticed.
The Independents stand in a dark corner, observing the others and ready to step from the shadows when they see who is looking loneliest as the music starts.
Johnny Fallon is a consultant in public affairs