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Fionnan Sheahan: Opposites attract, but they'll never be perfect bedfellows

SEEING out his notice on the job, Taoiseach Brian Cowen cast a sympathetic figure in the Dail chamber on Wednesday morning.

As the votes on the Finance Bill played out, veteran TDs from all sides of the house approached the Taoiseach's seat to shake his hand and wish him well after his weekend retirement.

The caretaker Taoiseach was gracious and appeared relieved as the weight was lifted from his shoulders.

Directly across the room, his obvious successor, sitting in his seat, was approached by another figure.

Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore chatted casually for about five minutes as they waited for the vote. By next month, the Fine Gael and Labour Party leaders are expected to be on the brink of entering coalition together following the 2011 General Election.

Over the coming weeks, the gloves will come off as both parties go all out to win the maximum number of seats -- and they won't hold back from capitalising on the misfortunes of their future coalition partners.

Unlike the 'Mullingar Accord' of 2007, the parties are fighting the election on their own individual platforms.

Labour is pushing its leader's attributes hard, while Fine Gael is pitching certainty and stability on the economic front.

A reversal in fortunes in the opinion polls has seen the 'Gilmore for Taoiseach' slogans become less frequent. But Labour views the campaign -- and the leaders' debates -- as a means to make gains.

The chaotic break-up of Cowen's coalition government falls into Fine Gael's lap -- as the party offering reliability -- and it should make large gains in this election, paving the way for two terms in office.

However, the defensiveness within Fine Gael over Kenny's media performances has merely added to the sense that he is vulnerable. If his own circle is nervous about him, then it ensures he will be the focus of quite intense scrutiny.

Kenny has already adopted the Taoiseach-in-waiting role with a trip to Brussels with his finance spokesman Michael Noonan yesterday to meet the European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso to discuss the rate of interest on the EU-IMF bailout.

But the international statesman still has to convince the domestic audience he is up to the task.

Kenny is on his way to the Taoiseach's office but the top job is not the only prize up for grabs. The number of seats won by each side will determine the shape of the next government in personalities and policies.

The mandate secured in the general election will decide how many seats at the cabinet table each side gets and what manifesto commitments make it on to the government agenda.

Anything less than over 60 seats will start the fingers pointing in Kenny's direction again, a party source concedes.

"The whole Enda Kenny thing died down because he went away. There is such nervousness about him. Now he'll have Micheal Martin on his right and Eamon Gilmore on his left. The election will become about the aptitude and ability of the person running the country. The concern is Labour will dominate government as a result," a TD said.

The Green Party blamed the collapse of the coalition in part on the constant speculation around Cowen's leadership and the uncertainty over who would be Taoiseach.

"We were pulling and dragging for a year with people who were watching their own situation. There was very little work being done," a Green source said.

Labour figures also sense the Kenny question will pop up again in the new government, especially if Fine Gael doesn't emerge as clear-cut winner of the election.

"The internal Fine Gael relations will be more interesting. I think they are very sensitive about it. After the heave, these are not wounds that heal quickly and it will be reflected in cabinet selections," a senior Labour figure said.

"The reality is over a three-to-four-week campaign, every leader has bad days."

Over on the Fine Gael side, an eye is being kept on who Gilmore will appoint to cabinet too.

After dealings in the Rainbow coalition and since then, Ruairi Quinn, Pat Rabbitte and Gilmore himself are regarded as workable.

"Joan (Burton) would get on with it. Once she gets her concerns off her chest, she'll be satisfied. (Roisin) Shortall: wouldn't have any time for her. She gets into spats and she would have her enemies in Fine Gael.

"Shatter has a reputation that everybody knows going way back. But since he got re-elected in 2007, there's been not one problem with him in the party.

"Howlin was very tough around the cabinet table in the previous government. He was cocky and arrogant. I can't see him around the cabinet table," a Fine Gael frontbencher said.

"If Leo Varadkar and Brendan Howlin were in the cabinet they would be hopping off each other. But Leo is a professional politician. Once we get around the table, they will concentrate on the issues."

Between them, Fine Gael and Labour ought to have 100 seats, but such a large majority has its own difficulties.

It allows for defections but creates a lot of nervous backbenchers. The coalition has a window until the local and European elections in 2014 to ram the worst of the hard medicine down the public's throats.

"That's the real intermediate test before backbenchers will get concerned," a source said.

The coalition is going to have to stick to the broad terms of the outgoing government's four-year budgetary plan agreed with the EU and IMF, meaning at least three more punitive budgets.

Part of the forthcoming election campaign will be about managing expectations. The new British coalition of David Cameron's Tories and Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats soon found the reality of government and budgetary restraints kicking in.

The electorate will get a change of personnel and culture in this country, but the wider economic policies won't be radically different.

Where the final numbers of Fine Gael and Labour TDs really come into the equation will be in setting the balance between spending cuts and tax hikes. Fine Gael is veering towards cuts, while Labour wants more on the tax side.

The parties have taken the lessons from the failure of the Fianna Fail and Green Party coalition on board. The tribal politics played by Cowen and Fianna Fail in belittling the Greens ultimately backfired as it brought the façade crashing down.

The basic necessity to maintain a tenet of trust and interpersonal relations, and to keep lines of communications open, were all ignored by the Fianna Fail-led administration in its dealings with the Green Party.

Kenny's abilities to manage a team will be put to the test. But he is seen as more akin to Bertie Ahern than Albert Reynolds or Cowen, in terms of coalition management.

"Cowen would have seen Gormley as a f***ing eejit and they were completely different.

"Gilmore and Kenny get on okay. They have their differences all right but they would also have had meaningful talks over the last year," a senior TD said.

"Kenny makes an effort to really get on well with people and is able to hold tight relationships with people."

Irish Independent