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Three-week saga will be gripping -- and don't rule out a plot twist

THE election is over before it begins. Fine Gael and Labour will form the next government, Fianna Fail will lead the opposition, Sinn Fein will do well, but not as well as it expects and a disparate band of independents will make a lot of noise in the 31st Dail.

Or is it over before it begins?

The great thing about a three-week campaign is that anything can happen. It normally does, in fact. Confidently, then, I can predict that the election is for Fine Gael to lose. Which brings us to Enda Kenny.

The Fine Gael leader remains desperately unpopular: 60 per cent of those polled are dissatisfied with him, yet they seem to be about to elect him Taoiseach.

A simple question arises: had Fine Gael changed its leader last year, would it now be heading for a comfortable majority, to form a single-party government for the first time in its history?

We will never know for sure, but the answer is, probably, yes; that said, at 34 per cent, Fine Gael is in a commanding position, to the point that it may be able to pick and chose a coalition partner when the votes are counted -- which is what makes this election so interesting.

So as the Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, on Tuesday brings down the curtain on his ill-fated tenure, on his 1,000th day in office, options on the formation of a new government would seem to be this:

A Fine Gael/Labour coalition; Fine Gael supported by a group of probably right-of-centre independents, or a Fine Gael minority government, supported by Fianna Fail from the opposition benches.

Kenny will be looking for a stable five-year haul, and for Labour to get its hands dirty, too. The next few years ain't going to be pretty: so, at this stage, expect a Fine Gael/Labour government.

But that may change if further momentum gathers behind the right-of-centre independents, whom we may jokingly refer to as Profit Before People, or if the new Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin gets enough support to make good on his promise to offer a 'Tallaght Strategy' in reverse.

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All of this is contingent, of course, on the big question: will Kenny implode in the next three weeks, and will the electorate run from him in the final week of the campaign, as it did in 2007?

The possibility is that he may implode, which is why Fianna Fail and Labour are trying to get him into a series of high-profile television debates, and why he appears to be resisting.

I am of the view, however, that the electorate has long since made up its mind on Kenny, and has decided to vote for Fine Gael despite, not because of, its leader.

One of the more interesting findings in the poll is that Fine Gael support is sticking, relatively speaking, more so than it is for any other party: 83 per cent of voters who plumped for the party in 2007 say they intend to vote again for Fine Gael this time.

Let us compare that figure to Sinn Fein, the party which, you might imagine, has the most die-hard following: 79 per cent of Sinn Fein voters in 2007 intend to vote Sinn Fein this time.

If there is a party that should be anxious, if not worried, it should be Labour. Last September, Labour was at 35 per cent, now it is at 24 per cent, an 11-point drop -- even with the EU-IMF having arrived in that period.

Of course, that is more than twice the support it had in the 2007 election, which saw Labour return with 20 seats. So, generally speaking, Eamon Gilmore and his colleagues will be relatively happy -- but they could be happier.

It seems to me that Labour is on the back foot already. From the small print of the poll, it may be that it has been picking a fight with the wrong people: Labour has been going head-to-head with

Sinn Fein, in the belief that Sinn Fein is eating into its support. And it is losing support to Sinn Fein, somewhat. But it is losing more support to the independents, probably the United Left Alliance, and to Fine Gael: 75 per cent of Labour voters in 2007 say they are sticking with Labour this time, but 7 per cent are going to the independents, 7 per cent to Fine Gael, and 4 per cent to Sinn Fein.

On the plus side, Gilmore remains the most popular leader, with a 48 per cent satisfaction rating; which is to say, he is, give or take, just about as popular as was Pat Rabbitte (46 per cent) when he led Labour into the last election.

That said, if the election is for Fine Gael to lose, then it remains for Labour to win; but Labour needs to focus, to focus sharply -- to stop looking both left and right at the same time -- and to do it quickly, or it may feel the hot breath of Fianna Fail on its neck.

This poll brings no good news for Fianna Fail, not even a dead-cat bounce upon the election of Micheal Martin as its leader, who was newly installed at the end of the first of two days of face-to-face polling last week, Wednesday and Thursday.

In the most recent comparable poll, last September, Fianna Fail was on 22 per cent: then came the EU-IMF 'bailout'. Now Fianna Fail is at 16 per cent, eight points behind Labour.

Micheal Martin has a fight on his hands, therefore, to take 'the Party' to about 20 per cent, at which point it may come back with around 30 seats, enough to lead the opposition and to start again -- if Labour goes into government, that is.

Fianna Fail has lost support in three chunks, to Fine Gael, Labour and to the independents -- left-wing and right-wing -- who may be about to emerge as the real story of this election: just 35 per cent of those who voted Fianna Fail in 2007 say they will do so again; but 22 per cent are going for Fine Gael this time, 19 per cent are choosing Labour and a significant 18 per cent are turning their backs on all parties to go independent.

The pollsters also sought to gauge the impact of Martin as leader of Fianna Fail: a massive 59 per cent say his elevation will not affect how they will vote, which will be, as you can imagine, not for Fianna Fail.

That said, 20 per cent said his leadership made it more likely that they will vote Fianna Fail, but 13 per cent said it made it less likely, and 7 per cent did not know.

Predictably, Martin's leadership has found more of a welcome in Munster (25 per cent) and Connaught-Ulster (23 per cent); but less so in Dublin, where 19 per cent said they were less likely to vote Fianna Fail as a result of his leadership.

His election last week, therefore, has done nothing to shore up support for Fianna Fail in the capital: the opposite, in fact. Fianna Fail is facing decimation in Leinster and wipeout in Dublin, where Fine Gael and Labour look like dividing the spoils.

If the outgoing Government, led by Fianna Fail, was in any doubt as to its unpopularity, then this poll dispels it: 95 per cent say they are dissatisfied with the Government, the highest level ever recorded; just four per cent, slightly above the margin of error, have expressed satisfaction.

Neither can the three principal characters of the outgoing Government seek solace from this poll: just 10 per cent expressed satisfaction with Brian Cowen; 15 per cent with Mary Coughlan, although a somewhat better 36 per cent are satisfied with the Minister for Finance, Brian Lenihan, the man who may have saved Fianna Fail in Dublin.

Which brings us to Sinn Fein, at 10 per cent in this poll, just a touch over three per cent higher than it was in the 2007 election, when it came back with four TDs.

With the tailwind of a successful by-election in Donegal South-West, which saw the election of poster boy Pearse Doherty, Sinn Fein will be disappointed with these figures, and will wonder if the declining popularity of its president is holding it back: with a 54 per cent dissatisfaction rating, Gerry Adams in more unpopular now than at any comparable time; ditto his satisfaction rating (28 per cent).

Sinn Fein seems to be struggling to make a breakthrough, even though its policies may have have a resonance, of sorts, with the voters. For example, 82 per cent want the EU-IMF deal renegotiated (as do Fine Gael and Labour, of course). But the small print may tell the real story of the apparent stalling of Sinn Fein: a majority 52 per cent believe such a renegotiation is unlikely to succeed.

As for the Greens. . . dear, oh dear: they are at one per cent, almost four points below the 2007

General Election result, when the party returned with six TDs and went into power with Fianna Fail.

Its leader is more unpopular than even Enda Kenny: a massive 70 per cent are dissatisfied with John Gormley. I am tempted to venture: 'house private, no flowers please', but the Greens are a movement, not just a party, and will probably return in some form or other in years to come.

Two final points. . .

If nothing else, Brian Cowen would seem to have made a good job of highlighting the policy differences between Fine Gael and Labour: a minority 42 per cent believe they are compatible; 44 per cent say they are incompatible and 14 per cent do not know if they are or not.

That said, a majority of Fine Gael and Labour voters (53 per cent in the case of both) believe they are compatible -- which is all Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore will want to know.

And finally, when the "Don't Knows" are included, that is, the polled people who have not yet made up their minds, there is a sizeable 20 per cent chunk of the electorate who remain to be persuaded.

In the next three weeks, people of all political parties and none, will try to convince them, and to bring others with them too, which should set us up nicely, then, for a most fascinating time.

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