Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are this weekend preparing a ground war to halt the onward march of Sinn Fein.
With less than a week to polling day, Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin has told Independent.ie that he would not rule out entering into a confidence and supply arrangement with Fine Gael if Leo Varadkar's party was in opposition as the smaller of the two parties.
It comes as a Red C poll published in today's Business Post recorded a surge in support for Sinn Fein heading into the final week of campaigning - with the party level with Fianna Fail, having overtaken Fine Gael for the first time.
Fianna Fail is on 24pc (down 2 points) as is Sinn Fein (+5), with Fine Gael on 21pc (-2). Among the other parties, Labour is on 5pc (+1), the Greens are on 7pc (-1), and Independents on 12pc (-2).
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has reacted to the opinion by saying it will be "quite difficult to form a government over the next couple of months".
He said the election will be "very tight" and despite slipping into third place he believes it is "all to play for".
Mr Varadkar was asked on the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme this morning what it would mean if the British government had to work with a Sinn Féin minister during the next stage of the Brexit process.
He said he hoped voters would consider the need for a stable government next week, reiterating that Fine Gael will not do business with Mary Lou McDonald under any circumstances.
The Taoiseach said Sinn Féin’s policy would be "enormously damaging for the Irish economy, for people’s jobs and incomes and livelihoods and businesses."
"So that’s definitely not going to happen."
Speaking about Brexit, Mr Varadkar called on the UK government not to "repeat some of the errors that were made in the past two and a half years".
"Let’s tone down the nationalist rhetoric," he said in response to reports in the British press that Prime Minister Boris Johnson is to take an extremely hard-line in the trade negotiations.
As Fianna Fail and Fine Gael continued to clash on tax promises and each insisted there would be no role for Sinn Fein in the next cabinet, Mr Martin said he was confident he would be able to form the next government without Fine Gael's input. But when asked about the possibility of a confidence and supply arrangement underpinned by Fine Gael, he said: "I haven't ruled that out."
So great is the concern at the rise in Sinn Fein support that pressure will grow in Fianna Fail to consider asking traditional Fine Gael voters to 'lend' them their support to keep Mary Lou McDonald's party out of office - a reversal of the move made by Fine Gael's Phil Hogan before the 2011 general election.
Former Fine Gael leader Alan Dukes said an alliance between the two largest parties, including a possible grand coalition, could be the "only viable option" after the election if they continue to rule out Sinn Fein, whose support Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are privately acknowledging is rising across the country. "You could conceive of a situation where that would be the only viable option but whether it would apply or not I don't know," Mr Dukes said. "I think it's conceivable."
Mr Martin has emphatically ruled out any engagement with Sinn Féin over forming a government after the February 8 General Election as he warned there is a deep anger amongst his party's voters with Sinn Féin and their lack of contrition over what happened during the Troubles.
Mr Martin, speaking as he canvassed in Cork today, also predicted that his party will secure significantly higher than the 24pc indicated by the latest opinion polls and are in contention to elect second TDs in constituencies stretching from Dublin to Limerick and Cork.
The Fianna Fáil leader bluntly dismissed attacks from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar that a FF-SF government alliance was now in the offing.
"I know what he (Mr Varadkar) is at - he is trying to frighten people away from Fianna Fáil. I would simply say that I have been very clear - judge me by my actions," he said.
"The same thing was said about me and Fianna Fáil in 2016 but, in the aftermath of the election, I did not engage with Sinn Féin. I engaged with independents but we did not have enough seats to form a Government. That is life - but I did not engage with Sinn Féin.
"He (Mr Varadkar) is underestimating the depth of anger in Fianna Fáil both in terms of not just the parliamentary party and the membership but the voters of Fianna Fáil - they have made it crystal clear to me they do not want Fianna Fáil to go into Government with Sinn Féin.
"That is it - a lot of people over a certain age remember what happened (in the Troubles). They are really annoyed by the lack of contrition, the lack of acknowledgement that what they did was wrong. Sinn Féin are still trying to shove it down people's throats that what they did was right. That it was a just war.
"That angers people - the families of Gardaí, families in the military who lost people because of this terrible thing which divided communities."
Mr Martin said Sinn Féin's economic policies also rule them out as someone Fianna Fáil could work with.
"Also because of the economic policies of Sinn Féin - they are talking about €4 billion in taxes? Irish businesses will be choked out of existence because the big hike in employers PRSI? Big hike in taxes on any profits they make? Why would you set up at all in business? Why would you set up a company and employ 15 or more people only to see, at the end of your life's work, to see it taxed out of existence?
"Our economy is an enterprise economy - we export the bulk of what we make. But Sinn Féin oppose free trade agreements. There is a sense that Sinn Féin just don't get the enterprise agenda.
"Sean Lemass opened up this economy in the 1960s and that is my philosophy. He got us to join the European Union - it was all about opening up Ireland, to stop us being only inward-looking.
"Sinn Féin don't get that - he (Mr Varadkar) is scaremongering on that."
Mr Martin stressed that there is a diversity of opinion within all political parties.
"No party is a monolith - there are lots of people with different views in all parties. We are not Russia but we are not like Sinn Féin either who tend to have a from-the-top-down (policy) and everyone does as they are told.
"I think it is healthy that in a parliamentary party you have lots of people with different views. But be in no doubt - people have supported me in my message on Sinn Féin and that is how it is going to pan out."
The Cork TD said he is convinced the recent polls are underestimating the surge in national support for Fianna Fáil.
"My first interview after the election was launched was on Sunday when
we had another opinion poll which had us way ahead - I said then we didn't accept that poll. I said there would be many polls up to February 8 which would vary.
"As far as we are concerned, we are doing well, we are very competitive in constituencies and far more competitive in our ground campaign that we were in 2016."
"Just to give you an example - take Cork North Central. Tony Fitzgerald, Padraig O'Sullivan and Sandra (Murphy). We are running three candidates but we only ran one the last time.
"We have two strong candidates in Cork South West, two in Limerick West, in Dublin South West we have three - this is a much stronger Fianna Fáil team on the ground.
"We will poll higher than that (24pc) in the election - of that we are confident. But it (the poll) is just one snapshot.
"I am not fazed by the polls because we were here before. In 2016 one poll had us on 19pc a couple of days before the election and we ended up on 25pc. We are holding our nerve on that."
Mr Martin said the polls do reflect the hunger of Irish voters for change - and what he termed the "relentlessly negative and arrogant" approach of Fine Gael.
"The one disappointing aspect of this campaign - people want us to talk about the solutions to problems in housing, healthcare and the economy. Fine Gael have been relentlessly negative in their campaigning - it is attacking Fianna Fail, it is attacking everybody else.
"They have this superiority complex that they are the only ones who can be in Government and nobody else - I think that is wrong. I think they have stopped resonating with people - I think they are insulting people. People want change - and the battle is on for who captures that vote for change. We think we have a sensible, do-able, achievable alternative with other like-minded parties and that is where we are."
Two senior Fine Gael cabinet ministers told Independent.ie they would be open to the idea of a confidence and supply or grand coalition arrangement.
But the Fianna Fail leader has firmly ruled out a grand coalition and the party's deputy leader Dara Calleary yesterday also said: "There's no logic to that outcome. People want Fine Gael out of office. We would be ignoring that need for change."
Mr Martin also said he did not see a repeat of the confidence and supply deal that saw Fianna Fail facilitate the minority Fine Gael government "arising".
But he said other parties "have to play their part after the next election".
As well as not ruling out a confidence and supply deal, when asked how he felt about a rotating Taoiseach, the Fianna Fail leader said: "I don't think it is a sustainable option at this stage."
Meanwhile, both parties clashed on tax policy yesterday as Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe suggested that Fianna Fail's manifesto proposal could threaten Ireland's 12.5pc corporation tax rate.
Fianna Fail finance spokesman Michael McGrath dismissed it as "scaremongering".
In his interview with Independent.ie, Mr Martin also launched his most strident attack on Fine Gael to date, saying: "They come from a more privileged background and they never really had that feel for working-class people."
Mr Martin said his own working-class background and opportunities through free education "sums up Fianna Fail". "The working-class person who wants to aspire and get on in life. To create opportunities - no matter what your background. I don't think Fine Gael come from that milieu," he said.
He added Fine Gael has a "huge sense of entitlement", a sense of "privilege" and believe "they have a divine right to rule".
"It is more instinctively a party who always looks after the wealthier classes and always has since its very foundation. It has a sense of privilege."
Meanwhile, a senior Sinn Fein source said the party would be open to talks with all parties after the election but signalled the party's preference to work with Fianna Fail.
"People want change," the source said. "They want Fine Gael out, it's nine years they're there and do they want Fianna Fail in there on their own?"
On the campaign trail yesterday, Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald dismissed as "stupid, silly and childish" the row between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail over which of them would ultimately do a deal with her party. Her party yesterday published legislation to reduce the age of retirement to 65 which Ms McDonald said it would introduce in the first 100 days in government.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, speaking as he canvassed in Cork, insisted everything remains to fight for in the final week of the campaign - and warned that senior Fianna Fail officials believe they already have "this election in the bag" and are preparing for ministerial offices, advisers and Garda cars.
Mr Varadkar insisted that a Fianna Fail-Sinn Fein coalition would be an economic disaster. "Is it change for good, which is what Fine Gael has been delivering, or is it change for the worse which is what Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein would deliver?"
Mr Varadkar insisted that Fine Gael can bounce back in the final days of the election campaign - despite the indications of numerous polls - when people realise what is at stake for Ireland given the challenges of Brexit and global trade.
He also claimed that some within Fianna Fail are behaving as if the February 8 General Election is already won. "I think there are elements in Fianna Fail who think this election is in the bag for them," he said.
"They are probably measuring up [Dail ministerial office] curtains, appointing advisers and talking about bringing back Garda cars.
"That is the kind of arrogance we are seeing from Fianna Fail - I hope they get a surprise next weekend."
One of the TDs who Mr Varadkar name-checked as supporting a Fianna Fail coalition with Sinn Fein last night said the Taoiseach was wrong.
"That's a definite no from me," Waterford TD Mary Butler said. "My position has always been the same."
Fianna Fail deputy leader Dara Calleary claimed that a vote for Sinn Fein was a vote for a vote to return Fine Gael to power. "People want change and that's what you get. You can vote Sinn Fein and get Leo.
"Mary Lou will do a deal with Fine Gael. I'm not convinced that Leo won't do a deal with Sinn Fein. He hasn't proven that he wouldn't whereas we have with Micheal in 2016," Mr Calleary said.
Foreign issues are rarely to the fore in European countries' elections. The Irish electoral system makes local issues even more important in national elections than in most other countries. Questions about foreign affairs tend to squeezed out as a result.
The general election is three-quarters done and dusted. Not just in terms of the actual duration of the campaign - we are about 75pc through the 26 days on the hustings - but in the actual number of seats we can now confidently allocate.
TAOISEACH Leo Varadkar has said he isn't fazed by an opinion poll which indicated Sinn Fein had dramatically overtaken Fine Gael in popular support just seven days before general election voting.
We haven't voted in a new government yet and I can already hear the excuses coming from Leinster House: "We'd heard we had €11bn to throw around but you should see the state the last crowd left the country in." Comedian Rick Mercer says there are two reasons why politicians break their promises: you already voted for them and you already voted for them.
There was a time when I ploughed my journalistic furrow in Co Galway, doing my bit with the 'Tuam Herald'. Much water has flowed under many a bridge since those topsy-turvy days but I always keep half an eye on the old stomping ground.