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Vicious exchanges now bode ill for post-election talks

Sunday, Feb 6: No major change in the Sunday Business Post opinion poll: FG 35 (+2); Lab 22 (+1); FF 17 (+1); SF and Greens unchanged at 13 and 2. But there is a significant drop in independent support -- from 15 to 11 -- reflecting the shuffling off stage of such high-profile media wannabe TDs as Eamon Dunphy and Fintan O'Toole.

Fascinating Fianna Fail party political broadcast featuring Micheal "My Father was a Bus Driver" Martin. We learn that his father boxed for Ireland and, he proudly tells us on his Cork walkabout, all that voters asked him when he was first canvassing was whether he was the Champ's son. And this from the man who's busy telling us out of the other side of his mouth that there must be an end to parish-pump politics!

The strategy is clear enough. Distract the voters with a quick trot through a genuinely happy family life in the hope that they'll forget all about Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowan, his godfathers in the Fianna Fail family, and his 14 years as at the Fianna Fail cabinet table. So, too, with his preaching to us, in his best priesteen manner, that "this election is not about swapping one crowd for another".

Like hell it's not. Never since 1948, when telegraph poles throughout the country were adorned with placards simply saying "PUT THEM OUT", has there been an election like this. But in 1948, Fianna Fail actually increased its share of the vote and only lost office because of the will to power through unity of all the other parties who had nothing in common beyond wanting to oust Fianna Fail. Now, Fianna Fail has accepted that it will be in opposition and its leader is busy running against his own party's past.

Monday, Feb 7:

Launch of Fianna Fail manifesto from a Tory-blue podium inscribed "REAL PLAN, BETTER FUTURE". I suppose the future can scarcely be worse but Micheal Martin playing the Great Reformer is hard to take.

Indeed he's entering into the role of another Martin, Martin Luther, with such enthusiasm that I wouldn't be surprised if PJ Mara advised him it would be a great photo opportunity if he wore sackcloth and ashes and nailed his reform theses to the door of Fianna Fail's headquarters in Mount Street. But it won't wash for the simple reason that, as RTE's Sean O'Rourke crisply told him, he has "the credibility of somebody who claims he was abducted in Kingsbridge about 15 years ago after getting off the Cork train".

A more hilarious feature of the launch, in a campaign so far short on laughs, were the film shots of Eamon O Cuiv, doubtless weighed down by his multifarious ministerial responsibilities, in a deep sleep.

Much discussion and criticism of Enda Kenny's continued refusal to participate in tomorrow's TV3 debate. I find myself in the unaccustomed position of agreeing with Gerry Adams, who says: "The whole thing's a pain in the ass."

TV3 is so desperate to host any kind of a leaders' debate that it can't see the incongruity of assuming that Micheal Martin has a divine right to participate despite his party's running at well below 20 per cent in the opinion polls.

He has no prospect whatsoever of being the next Taoiseach and no more right to take part in such a debate than Gerry Adams. But the media's subservience to Fianna Fail after so many decades of deference dies hard.

Tuesday, Feb 8:

Another rotten morning for Fianna Fail. Photograph of the somnolent O Cuiv makes it on to the front page of the Indo, where it appears cheek-by-jowl with the headline Martin plan backfires as he clings to €90,000 deal. The Blessed Martin's reforming zeal clearly does not extend to his embracing even the scarcely grinding poverty of relinquishing his € 90,000 ministerial severance payment.

Eamon Gilmore on walkabout for the second day in a row wearing a laboratory coat. Are we supposed to think of him as the Man in the White Coat here to cure the diseased body politic? He just looks awkward and uncomfortable.

Despite all the hype, the TV3 debate proves interesting, not least because of Vincent Browne's heroically self-imposed silence. This produces an excellently moderated debate with the protagonists locking horns again and again.

All but the Labour faithful agree that Martin was the clear winner. He was clearer, more assertive and quickly seized a psychological ascendancy he never lost. But the best Martin can hope for is to shore up the Fianna Fail vote and the coach-and-four he drove through Gilmore's pretensions to be Taoiseach could mean that the real winner was Enda Kenny.

But first we must see if the next opinion polls show that his absence has turned off the voters and halted the seemingly inexorable momentum towards Fine Gael.

Wednesday, Feb 9:

The closure of nominations reveals the truly historic character of this election. Fianna Fail nominations have collapsed to 76. For the first time, including even its very first election in 1927, it is not running enough candidates to achieve an overall majority.

The other startling statistic is the phenomenal increase in the number of independent candidates since 2007: from 90 to 202. The next Dail could be a real hotch-potch.

Brian Lenihan dramatically announces that he has postponed transferring another €10bn into the banks as agreed under the terms of the EU-IMF bailout deal.

This prompts outraged responses from Labour's Joan Burton and FG's Michael Noonan, who describes it as "a classic FF political stroke" aimed at avoiding announcing more bad news in the last week of the election.

Sinn Fein's Aengus O Snodaigh launches the party's policy document on crime outside the Department of Justice, scarcely Sinn Fein's spiritual home; he calls for "more gardai on the streets. . . enhancing the relationship between the Garda Siochana and the community".

An indispensable requirement for this kind of diary is a robust sense of humour!

Thursday, Feb 10:

The Cork air crash so dominates the news that it feels almost like a day of rest in the campaign.

Friday, Feb 11:

The Cork air crash and then the sensational scenes from Egypt when Mubarak finally resigns again pushes the election into the background despite Labour launching its manifesto at the Aviva Stadium while the Irish team were training on the pitch below. It is wasting both time and money if it thinks that such PR glamour will induce a feel-good factor and make the voters forget that the only real issue in this election is the better management of pain.

Meanwhile, the Blessed Martin clutches at the rags of his reformer's robe by announcing that he has decided to waive his €90,000 severance payment. But Fianna Fail looks increasingly irrelevant and today's real brawl revolves around Labour's rejection of Michael Noonan's charge that it was becoming a "seriously high-tax party".

The viciousness of such exchanges bodes ill for the negotiations that must be concluded with great speed after the election if Ireland is to have any chance of having a strong government in place for the crucial EU talks before the end of March.

Sunday Independent