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James Downey: Never waste a good crisis -- the people have responded

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WHAT began as a dull election campaign turned, mid-way, into an intriguing event full of incident and full of possibilities.

Next Saturday we will spend hour upon hour watching the counts unravel on television. A far cry from 2007, when the tallymen were able to tell us the result before a single vote was counted.

The central and most positive feature of the campaign has been the level of public engagement. The people have responded to the maxim "never waste a good crisis" better than the politicians.

This is due only in part to the interest generated by the television debates and the public fury with Fianna Fail. It indicates a degree of maturity and good sense in which, in the midst of our woes, we can rejoice.

Let the Greeks, or the French, or anybody else, do things their own way. We prefer the ballot box to the street.

The opinion polls tell us that the voters have given some thought to their choices.

The thought may not be deep, but it is real. People have not only considered the effect of the election result on individuals and families but have pondered the question of what is best for the country and most of them, it is clear by now, have come to firm conclusions.

There is still room, but very little room, for a Fianna Fail mini-revival. If that happens, it will not be because voters trust the party to extricate us from the calamity it has itself brought about, but simply because some of its traditional supporters cannot bring themselves to vote for its rivals.

Notably, the polls show straight switches, far fewer to Sinn Fein or Independents than to Fine Gael and Labour.

The voters know that these are the only two parties in serious contention for office. As the campaign heads to its close, only two possible outcomes remain -- a Fine Gael single-party government or a Fine Gael-Labour coalition.

So let us look at the numbers. According to my own calculations, the best case scenario for Fine Gael is 73 seats, 10 short of the magic 83 which delivers a Dail majority.

I happen to know that the party's own figure is 74. Can 73 or 74 seats bring about a single-party Fine Gael government supported by independents?

That is harder than the figures might make it appear. There are a record 202 independent and mini-party candidates, but the great majority have no chance of election.

Most likely, they will win fewer than 20 seats, and only half a dozen of their holders will be "compatible" with Fine Gael. And it would border on the absurd for the party to make itself dependent on them when it has an alternative which offers stable government.

The alternative is of course a Fine Gael-Labour coalition. The arguments in its favour are numerous and need no elaboration. But one stands out. It is the preferred choice of respondents to opinion polls, including large numbers of Fine Gael voters. People intend to vote for what they see as stability.

There remains the possibility that in the last few days of the campaign Fine Gael could push its support up to about 42pc. At that level, a majority government becomes conceivable. But the odds continue to favour a coalition.

It therefore seems strange -- indeed, it is strange -- that the two parties have spent so much of the campaign sniping at each other. I have thought, and said, from the beginning that they should be fighting in a loose alliance.

They do have some genuine policy differences. Some are, to put it politely, hard to understand, like Eamon Gilmore's allegation of a €5bn "black hole" in Fine Gael's fiscal policy. On others, like public service reform, both parties are weak -- and so is Fianna Fail.

An accountant of my acquaintance has calculated (and supplied me with the relevant figures) that under Labour's taxation plans certain kinds of income would be subject to a rate in excess of 100pc.

This is manifestly daft. But in real life I cannot believe that it could happen, even under a Labour-led government. There will be a compromise.

Compromise was in the air, too, during the week in a fascinating radio conversation between Pat Rabbitte and Michael Noonan.

They spent the first half of their time disagreeing, and the second half finding common ground. These two heavyweights know something about political realities.

So, barring earthquakes, we can expect, in a month's time, a new government with an overwhelming mandate. Just what we need? Well, yes.

Some reservations, though. As you know, I believe that we need a strong opposition as well as a strong government. There seems little or no chance of a strong opposition now.

Fianna Fail may have fewer than 30 Dail seats. And as if the figure were not bad enough in itself, the party will probably take years to recover from the shock of losing its cosy (and in recent times self-deluded) position in the national spectrum.

For the new government, there is also the "vision thing". The moderator of the TG4 debate began by asking the three main party leaders to outline their vision for our society. Gilmore did best, but to my mind none of the three managed to combine realism and imagination.

And the same debate contained a telling section when it came -- naturally, this being TG4 -- to the issue of compulsory Irish in the Leaving Certificate.

Nobody made what I consider the crucial point. We have had, in effect, the same Irish-language policy for 90 years. It has manifestly failed.

On the verge of losing office, Fianna Fail offered us 20 more years of much the same. We cannot go on conducting public policy, in any area, like this. We never could afford it, either in practical terms or in "vision" terms.

Least of all can our shattered society afford it now.

Irish Independent