John Downing: Sinn Fein will struggle to reach a higher gear
THE very worst thing that can happen to somebody in politics is that they be ignored. Yes, at times, being ignored can even be worse than being nabbed with the fingers in the till or being caught in flagrante in an 'away game' with somebody else's spouse or partner.
Sinn Fein will be mindful of that reality today as it privately rakes over the details of the latest Ipsos MRBI opinion poll. The party knows the biggest danger it faces, as it ramps up preparations for the June 2014 local council and European Parliament elections, is that it risks losing visibility and momentum to a resurgent Fianna Fail.
Publicly, you can expect the usual low-key Sinn Fein reaction about 'snapshots in time' and the old-as-the-surveys line about 'the only poll that counts is the ballot box'.
But behind that bluff, SF strategists know the party is neck-and-neck with the ones with whom it shares the same political fishing pool -- Fianna Fail.
Sinn Fein can argue that it is no small achievement to be, in broad terms, on 20pc of the popular vote and just fractionally behind its rivals, FF. After all, it is still double what the party achieved in the last general election.
But Fianna Fail has gained four points, it has momentum and it also has a slightly-sunken infrastructure in every parish across the land, with disenchanted activists who could be persuaded to revive their interest in politics and the 'auld party'.
Going back to the last general election in February 2011, Sinn Fein got a record 10pc of the vote. While its vote was up just 3pc on the May 2007 general election, it brought the party a whopping 10 extra seats by better vote management and its candidates being more 'transfer-friendly'.
Sinn Fein began this Dail term clearly determined to move into Fianna Fail's space. The party showed two remarkable spikes in its rising popular support in the opinion polls: in October 2011 its popularity ranking rose to 15pc and in May 2012 it rose to a whopping 24pc.
What was happening around each of these two periods? Well, in October 2011, Martin McGuinness was very effectively flying the party flag in the presidential election.
And in early summer, the party was getting loads of media exposure in opposing the EU Fiscal Treaty referendum.
Since then, Gerry Adams & Company have found themselves to be rebels without a big-picture cause to propel themselves into the limelight.
The party's problems have been compounded by the perception that Adams has not grasped much of the detail of day-to-day politics on this side of the Border, and seems less than enthusiastic about coming to grips with it.
By contrast, Micheal Martin has been on the road meeting, speaking and cajoling. He has more bugbears than he has advantages -- including the little matter of his very close association with the total ruination of the Irish economy over the years 2008-2011.
It is hard to overstate the scale of Fianna Fail's disastrous showing in the last general election. In fact, FF got a lower percentage vote than the old Irish Parliamentary Party had got in the December 1918 general election.
The old Irish Party got 21pc in 1918 to FF's 17pc in 2011. Thanks to the British authorities, Fianna Fail had proportional representation, which saved it from emulating Irish Party, which had to perish by the 'straight vote' and vanish into the mists of history.
FF leader Micheal Martin is acutely aware that the reasons for the party's comprehensive election drubbing have not gone away. The people's trust in the party was totally shattered and at best it can only be partially regained over a long period of hard work.
The Government's retort to many FF criticisms that 'you were the ones who caused all this' has a certain resonance for some people. It will be a long and uncertain road back for the party.
But Martin has begun the long hard slog of rebuilding his political organisation. And he has avoided many easy shots of opposing everything and instead has tried to bring forward some solutions to the nation's ongoing woes.
In summary, Martin is trying to do what Enda Kenny set out to do for Fine Gael in the aftermath of their May 2002 electoral meltdown. The only difference is that Martin's task is vastly more daunting than the one Kenny faced a decade ago. But Kenny's experience shows us that volatility in Irish politics continues to increase and the only political constant is change.
Currently, Sinn Fein members find themselves to be rebels without a public cause and momentum, that vital political ingredient, is not now with the party.
Being right about everything that is wrong, and opposing absolutely everything, will only take any political organisation so far in gaining mainstream support.