Enda Kenny has one personal distinction in this election. He is the sole candidate fighting his 12th campaign. He will recall fierce headwinds against Fine Gael in 1977, 1987 and 2002, resulting in landslide defeats. In all previous elections, it was Fianna Fail versus the rest. Not so this time. The doorstep mantra is "anyone but FF". Kenny's FG enjoys the strongest tailwind ever.
This contest started on November 22, when the Greens gave notice of pulling the plug. The longest foreplay in electoral history has been most uninspiring. Sideshows of television debates, opinion polls and leaders' tours are of marginal relevance to the outcome. Key question? Can Kenny seal the deal. Bookies and betting exchanges will only give a 5pc rate of return on Kenny to be Taoiseach (odds of 1/20).
At the risk of being accused of blueshirt baggage, it seems inconceivable that he will not be elected Taoiseach on March 9. Stand back and compare the 2007 result. FG underperformed in the second half of the campaign, with Enda blamed for a poor leaders' debate performance. Their first preference outcome was 28pc. Fianna Fail has since dropped from 42pc to a current rating in the mid-teens. This collapse of more than 22pc is unprecedented.
Broadcast media election coverage is governed by rules laid down by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI). This means that television and radio stations have to observe strict proportionate coverage for each party or grouping. Proportionate to what? The last general election result. This favours incumbent government parties. Good luck to them, they need all the help they can get. Coverage may give an impression that FF is more in the game than it actually is. It is playing a diminished B team, dozens of key players have left the pitch, it has insufficient money and an impossible record to defend.
Micheal Martin has performed well as the new FF leader. He appears assured, confident, personable, charming and sincere. Most of all, he is not Brian Cowen. Unfortunately for Micheal in this campaign, he's like a poker player that doesn't get a decent hand of cards all night. People are trudging through a valley of tears in darkness. In the search for light, the current FF brand resembles a candle -- irrespective of modification, it cannot be transformed into a lightbulb.
The real unanswered question is why is FG only picking up 5pc of this disaffection? The November 1982 FG result of 38pc should be readily attainable. Former FF voters include many middle-income earners. Word from the hustings is that those with a salary of over €50,000 have one overriding personal concern. Their January pay packet was decimated. They want to know which non-FF party will inflict least further pain. In the arm wrestle between spending cuts and tax hikes, who is on their side? Shock horror, people voting out of narrow self interest. It was ever thus.
Therefore tomorrow's FG policy launch on taxation, rather than the TV3 debate, is a pivotal moment in the campaign. FG has to credibly and competently show it will downsize government before imposing extra taxes. The big banana skin could be its proposals for household charges. Watch out for its residential property tax and water rates details. Ultimate revenues of €1.5bn could ensue from tax-based broadening. The inevitable odium from these liabilities will be toxic.
FG strategists believe it will win between 65 and 71 seats. Based on 2009 local election results, this is achievable. Subsequent budget blues, bailouts and botched reshuffles have improved its prospects. Yet doubts lurk that FG can somehow pluck mediocrity from the jaws of victory. Perhaps it has underestimated the mood of voter realism and expectations. A lower tax credo always makes sense. However, in the current context of national receivership, the appetite for leadership aspires to a higher plain.
Friday's proposal to provide mortgage tax relief for those in negative equity may be too smart by half. In the disastrous 2002 campaign, the late Jim Mitchell proposed a financial compensation package for taxi drivers who overpaid for licences. Through deregulation, they were valueless. It was a blatant attempt to buy sectional votes. Even supporters raised their eyes to heaven in disbelief. A return to the days of 'lucky bag' politics is deeply misguided. Voters are fed up of being bought with their own money.
Meanwhile, a menacing new dawn is emerging within the eurozone. While we focus on bailout costs, terms and conditions, a wider reality beckons. Fundamental flaws in the architecture of the euro currency are exposed by national economic divergence. Sovereign government bond rates within 17 states starkly contrast. A 'one-size-fits-all' currency contradicts separate states's competitiveness and economic performance. As a quid pro quo for bailouts, deeper fiscal integration is being insisted upon.
In the context of the latest Franco-German initiative, opposition parties are being excessively opportunistic. Ireland's back is to the wall. Peripheral states are negotiating from a position of weakness. Combining issues of debt default and tax harmonisation sets off alarm bells of our vital national interest. Our domestic market is so small that we must live on exports of goods and services. The 'green jersey' has to be worn to sustain our base of foreign industry here.
Kenny, Gilmore and Martin must have a unified approach to these fundamentals. A cross-party initiative is urgently required. Irrespective of the election outcome, parties should mandate our senior officials to set out a clear national coherent perspective -- with vigorous lobbying of the European Commission and like-minded member states. A Tallaght strategy should apply in the vital coming weeks on the revised arrangements for the European Finance and Stability Fund. Real leadership transcends petty party gamesmanship.
The first full week of campaigning sees party manifestos published in coming days. News management nowadays means daily chunks of chapters, rather than the single mega-launch.
Policy was wrongly relegated as an irrelevancy in the Bertie era of pragmatism, coalition deal-making and partnership. Expediency ruled okay, with disastrous consequences. Yet these policy platforms don't match the moment. Kenny should start to behave like a Taoiseach. It's time to call Cowen, seek a consensus and initiate a collective approach in advance of the March EU council summit. Carpe diem.