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James Downey: Fine Gael, with or without Labour -- that's the choice

ANY remaining doubts about voting intentions in the general election on Friday must surely be dispelled by the findings of the Irish Independent/Millward Brown Lansdowne opinion poll published here today.

It not only tells us a great deal about the likely -- one might well say certain -- voting patterns. It also tells us a great deal about the public mood, about how the voters have made their decisions and even about when they made them.

For its most striking feature is that it differs only insignificantly from the last poll in the series, published a week ago.

It shows Fine Gael on exactly the same figure as last week, 38pc, with Labour on 20pc, Fianna Fail on 14pc, Sinn Fein on 11pc, the Greens on a single percentage point and Independents/others on 16pc.

Interviewing was conducted on Sunday and Monday, so close to polling day as to make any changes of mind extremely remote.

The respondents have sent a firm signal, especially to Fine Gael and Labour. There has been much speculation about the possibility that Fine Gael might advance a few more percentage points, making the formation of a single-party government a genuine option. This has not happened.

Clearly the voters prefer a Fine Gael-Labour coalition. In effect, they have gone so far as to try to dictate the shape of the coalition: one in which the larger party commands Dail numbers, and therefore exerts influence, in a proportion of two to one.

Polls aside, this is exactly what analysts would have forecast. But it differs radically from what appeared to be the pattern of public opinion before the election campaign began.

For a time, Labour appeared to have come close to challenging Fine Gael for the status of the largest party in the incoming Dail. The battle started with 'Gilmore for Taoiseach' posters but these soon disappeared as the polls, and the evidence from the doorsteps, showed their lack of plausibility.

That might seem to settle the age-old question of whether campaigns matter, whether they change voters' intentions. Looking only at the surface, the answer might be yes.

Labour has certainly fought a lacklustre campaign. Eamon Gilmore has made some outstanding gaffes, like his reference to "Frankfurt's way or Labour's way". The party has made too little use of effective performers, like Ruairi Quinn and Pat Rabbitte.

In addition, Gilmore cannot have been helped by clunky trade-union intervention -- although there is no evidence that that has made any difference one way or the other.

But Labour has also suffered from the presence of an army of 'independents/others', including far-left fringe parties.

At the same time, a hopelessly weakened Fianna Fail has been unable to fight off the challenge from Sinn Fein as it did in 2007. Sinn Fein will take votes from Fianna Fail and Labour.

Labour's major problem is credibility. After the chaos that marked the dying days of the Fianna Fail-Green coalition, the public longed for stable government. Plainly, the best way to achieve that was to support the party with the best chance of gaining and wielding real power -- but not too much power.

PLAINLY, too, the voters have got it right. On the basis of the Irish Independent poll, fortified by all the evidence of trends, Fine Gael will not achieve a Dail majority. A single-party Government would have to rely on Independents. That is no basis for stable government.

Among the voters who have come to these conclusions are vast numbers of former Fianna Fail supporters, who are determined to exact revenge for the dire condition of the country.

As recently as the end of last year, the idea that the party which dominated Irish politics for generations could fall below 20pc would have been simply unthinkable. Now it faces the likelihood that its Dail representation will not reach the 30 seats necessary for a base from which to rebuild. It could fail to achieve any representation in a dozen or more constituencies.

It could be wiped out in Dublin City, where Fine Gael and Labour are neck-and-neck and Sinn Fein expects to make gains. Two of the key figures in any potential revival, Brian Lenihan and Mary Hanafin, are struggling to retain their seats.

This poll suggests that the likely Fianna Fail seat count is in the low twenties. The chances of any lucky breaks in the voting transfer process are very poor. Most likely, the lucky breaks will go to Fine Gael.

If there is any consolation for Fianna Fail, it is that Sinn Fein finds itself in exactly the same position as the mainstream parties. It has neither advanced nor receded. It will be virtually impossible for it to overtake Fianna Fail as the third party in the 31st Dail.

One thing the campaign has shown up is Sinn Fein's abysmal lack of leadership. Gerry Adams is embedded in Northern politics and profoundly out of touch not only with economic issues but with the Republic's society in general. Intriguingly, the issue of the party's leadership has surfaced in the course of the campaign. Before long, perhaps, we will witness a leadership contest between Pearse Doherty and Mary Lou McDonald -- if the latter can win a Dail seat in Dublin Central.

But that is for another day. The shape of this election has been determined. It only remains for the electors to cast their votes and decide on a single issue: a Fine Gael Government or a Fine Gael-Labour Government.

There are no other choices.

Irish Independent