So Mary Lou McDonald and Sinn Féin get to the top table tonight to debate with the other big party leaders.
This contest on RTÉ television between Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, and the Sinn Féin leader will be box office. This encounter, which kicks off at 9.35pm, could finally add a little much-needed zest to a rather lacklustre campaign so far.
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It is expected to be a lively debate. The two comperes Miriam O’Callaghan and David McCullagh will have their work cut out to keep order.
This debate happens three full canvass days from polling day and normally it would have little prospect of dramatically altering the election outcome. But we are in seriously uncharted waters here as the political status quo we have lived with since the 1930s looks set to be upended.
The latest survey shows that Sinn Féin is actually ahead of both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael for the first time ever. Sinn Féin are hampered by having too few candidates in the field to take up available votes – but some number crunchers suggest they could still have the largest number of TDs in part because the other two parties are so low.
It is not difficult to guess how each of them will play things tonight. First off, lets look at what Mary Lou McDonald’s game plan will be.
The Sinn Féin backroom advisers will undoubtedly have three key words for her: first will be “moderation,” second will be “detail” and the third will be “sincerity.”
Ms McDonald helped her party climb and climb in the popularity stakes by in large part casting themselves as “excluded.” In the big leader debate on Virgin Media television, and before the RTÉ u-turn allowed her participate in this one, she “was the face at the window.”
Very skilfully she told discontented voters that the “old parties,” somewhat in cahoots with “big media,” were trying to dictate things to Sinn Féin, and by extension to the voters. Well, tonight she loses that alibi and suddenly it’s all down to her.
She has a difficult tightrope to walk. With her party now ranked first, it suddenly could be hers to lose – hence the emphasis on moderation and less is more.
The “detail” relates to important questions she could not answer, especially in relation to taxation, on Monday night in a tough one-on-one interview with RTÉ’s Bryan Dobson. Tonight it is likely that her opponents will try to test the validity of Sinn Féin’s big tax and spend plans and she had better know those details.
The final word “sincerity” relates to her party’s dark past and its links to the IRA. In particularly we are talking about the brutal IRA murder of Paul Flynn as recently as 2007 – far from ancient history. Her party’s response to his bereaved family was very upsetting and many people remember that.
But by comparison, the Taoiseach’s task is most difficult of all. Leo Varadkar must show that he is still fighting – even though some of the numbers people suggest Fine Gael will actually go further backwards on a poor election last time in 2016. They could be reduced to the early 30s in terms of Dáil seats, comparable with their worst ever days out.
But a courageous and never-say-die approach could garner some belated kudos for the Fine Gael leader. His attacks on Fianna Fáil did not work too well and tonight his prime target must be Sinn Féin’s economic policies.
It is too late for Leo Varadkar to stray too far from his core economic message and emphasis on the upcoming perils of Brexit. But he must find other ways of conveying these messages while also broadening his canvass.
Micheál Martin is now the one in the middle. It may be a bit of a stretch – but he must still portray himself as the only real viable Taoiseach after Saturday’s general election.
Fianna Fáil still has the benefit of having twice the number of candidates in the field as Sinn Féin. He can still claw back ground, and like Leo Varadkar, his line of attack on Ms McDonald must primarily be the economy.
Older voters may find succour in criticisms of Sinn Féin’s management of things in the North for the brief periods they were actually working the power-sharing structures there. He can also further his low-key appeal to Fine Gael voters to throw in with Fianna Fáil to foil Sinn Féin.