With less than two weeks to go to polling day, Fine Gael has said for the first time that it would prefer to form a government with like-minded independent TDs than with Labour.
An analysis of polling data published so far indicates that Fine Gael can be expected to win around 70 seats, 13 short of the 83 required for an overall majority.
The increasingly strident tone of exchanges between Fine Gael and Labour has led to speculation that the talks on a Programme for Government may prove difficult.
As the campaign continues, however, Fine Gael is becoming more confident -- clearly confident enough to dispense with the notion that coalition with Labour is a fait accompli.
Yesterday Fine Gael TD Phil Hogan told the Sunday Independent that its "favoured option" would be to form a government on its own or with "like-minded" independent TDs.
"Obviously it is a matter for the people to decide," Mr Hogan said, but he added that Fine Gael would only negotiate with Labour on the basis of the mandate received for Fine Gael's five-point plan "to keep taxes low, to eliminate waste and put jobs at the centre of policy".
As if to underline the belief that Fine Gael would prefer to go it alone after the election, finance spokesman Michael Noonan has called on Labour to break its link with the trade union movement.
In effect, Mr Noonan laid down a marker yesterday when he said the trade unions had wielded disproportionate "influence and power" in Government Buildings in the last 10 years.
In what amounts to a dramatic escalation of the row between the prospective coalition partners, he placed the unions in a category of a "golden circle" of "vested interests".
"It's time for a complete break with the past in Irish politics. The golden circle of influence and inside dealing has to end," Mr Noonan told the Sunday Independent.
A further series of Sunday Independent/ Quantum Research constituency opinion polls this weekend indicates that Fine Gael is likely to win more seats than had been anticipated before the election campaign got under way.
For example, Fine Gael now looks set to win three seats in Carlow-Kilkenny and two seats in Dublin South-East; in 16 constituencies polled, Fine Gael is on course to win 35 of 69 seats available.
The trend towards Fine Gael is confirmed in the latest Red C poll for The Sunday Business Post today, which found: Fine Gael (38 per cent) up three points; Labour (20 per cent) down two; Fianna Fail (15 per cent) down two; Sinn Fein (10 per cent), down three; Greens (3 per cent) up one; independents (14 per cent) up three.
An analysis of the results of three opinion polls firms, Millward Brown Lansdowne, Ipsos MRBI and Red C, shows that Fine Gael is likely to win at least 70 seats, 13 short of a majority.
Fine Gael will this week seek to increase its core support and develop a vote-transfer strategy to maximise the number of seats it can win.
If it wins 75 seats or more, the view is that Fine Gael will attempt to form a government with like-minded independent TDs.
Yesterday observers were speculating as to who such independent TDs may be.
They are said to include former Fine Gael minister Michael Lowry; former Progressive Democrat TD Noel Grealish; independent senator Shane Ross; Wicklow independent Joe Behan and Dublin North Central TD Finian McGrath.
But such is the high proportion of the electorate still undecided, or who are voting for independent candidates, relatively unknown independent TDs may yet emerge to negotiate an arrangement with Fine Gael.
In recent days, for example, the former PD councillor Eddie Fitzpatrick, now an independent candidate, is said to be gaining momentum in the wide-open constituency of Laois-Offaly, where the PDs won in the past, and where one of Fine Gael's sitting TDs is not contesting.
The election campaign was last week marked by increasingly bitter exchanges between Fine Gael and Labour, specifically in relation to economic policy, but on wider issues too.
The breakout of tensions between the two began when Mr Noonan described Labour as a "seriously high-tax party". Labour leader Eamon Gilmore responded that Mr Noonan's criticism was "old-fashioned, out of date and wrong".
Fine Gael then claimed Labour's manifesto would "damage economic growth, slow down the economy and hammer job creation".
But Mr Gilmore said Fine Gael's fiscal package had a "black hole" because its growth projections were based on an out-of-date paper produced by the Economic and Social Research Institute in the middle of 2010.
Also yesterday Mr Gilmore accused Fine Gael of "siding with the bankers". He said he was surprised that Fine Gael opposed a Labour proposal to introduce a tax on international financial transactions.
In response, the Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny said his party's position of keeping taxes low and growth high would lead to a stronger economy.
Mr Kenny also announced plans yesterday to abolish or rationalise 145 quangos. He said the proposals would result in job losses, but that these would be voluntary.
But the intervention of Mr Noonan yesterday takes what may be regarded as electoral skirmishes between the parties to an entirely new level, by his association of Labour with a golden circle of vested interests.
He said: "It's time for a complete break with the past in Irish politics. The golden circle of influence and inside dealing has to end. That was politics the Fianna Fail way.
"Bankers and developers allied to a complicit government brought our economy to the brink. Their role in guiding the priorities of the government of the day will come to an end if Fine Gael gets elected.
"Enda Kenny has given an explicit commitment to ban donations to parties from all corporate organisations. This means big business, big banks and, crucially, big unions.
"I am now calling on the Labour Party to sign up to this commitment on funding," he added.
THE reporter was only halfway through the question when a smile began to form on Micheal Martin's lips. This was an easy one. There was a time when it would have been an awkward question, but now he's the undisputed leader of Fianna Fail he doesn't have to worry about offending former bigshots.
Eamon Gilmore is deeply worried about the effect on the Irish people of what he called the 'Frankfurt Prescription' which is ruthlessly deflating our consumer economy in order to bring our costs down and make our exports more competitive (a laudable objective, but at what price?).
Fine Gael is certain to form a new government. The only question is will it do so alone. The likelihood is that it will have to rely on others. There are people who get excited about this sort of thing. I am not one of them.
THE clue is in the name. Election Manifesto. There was a time when I sought out such documents. Bent over my desk, chain-smoking, I zealously read every page, making notes in the margins. And yes, you're right, it was a sad life. Sometimes I'd even draw up charts, comparing the stance of each party on the major issues of the day.