Day of reckoning beckons as many are braced for overnight redundancy
After all the noise and a blizzard of polls, today people will quietly make their way to polling stations. The anger on the radio has finally receded. Time for everyone to reflect and "think twice".
For the candidates themselves, polling day has a weird quality to it. It can be lonely and gloomy. There is nothing more to be done; the day can drag now that canvassing is frowned upon near polling stations. There was a time when voters had to encounter leaflet waving canvassers vying for last-minute preferences. Thankfully, that crude practice is now outlawed.
My sense this time is that there will be a high turnout; the electorate, however irked, is engaged - which is good. In that context, votes of the over 65s will be crucial. As Dan O'Brien pointed out in these pages yesterday, there are more pensioners in Ireland than there are twentysomethings. This favours established parties, who win most support from this age cohort. With the polls showing such a flight to Independents and hard Left, mature voters could have a stabilising effect.
Today is a day of reckoning for many individual politicians. Some face overnight redundancy when the votes are counted, not because of poor performance but because of the vagaries of boundary changes. Losing your seat as a TD is a very public humiliation. It is much more than a job; it constitutes your identity, status and standing in the community. Your life is one of constant preoccupation; families and loved ones are too often the collateral damage. To endure such public rejection can be devastating after all the hard work. It is not for the faint-hearted. But it is a meaningful life and a unique privilege.
But being in government is a difficult and merciless business, as evidenced by the misjudgments and gaffes made in this campaign, particularly by Fine Gael. A critical or negative focus inevitably falls on the incumbent government. They have to account for all the failings. This time emotive issues of health services and homelessness have been prominent. The verdict would appear to be that the Government has not delivered on these challenges - or not sufficiently well - to win hearts, minds and votes.
As Micheál Martin correctly predicted at the start of this campaign, there would be no "coronation" of this Government. From the get-go, the Taoiseach allowed distractions like Michael Lowry to linger too long. The Government talking up the recovery as a fait accompli was misjudged, and it took too long to recalibrate the message to "bringing the recovery home". Ministers appeared taken aback by the white heat of anger of so many not touched by the "recovery".
Predictably, this state of affairs gave free rein to the opposition parties in all their diversity to dine out on the Government's discomfort. There was no shortage of ammunition. My own observation is that the broadcast media was unduly antagonistic to Government during this three-week campaign. There seemed to be an unrelenting and unbalanced focus on everything that is wrong with the health and social services and virtually nothing positive about the many improvements in the economy made possible by a stabilising of the public finances and economic growth. By any objective measure, compared to other indebted European countries, Ireland has made very good progress in job creation and fiscal stability. But any such credit was drowned out by the hard-luck stories of adversity receiving constant airtime. Simon Coveney's last-ditch and pleasantly uninterrupted presentation on the radio yesterday of the Coalition's achievements was long overdue and persuasive.
The set-piece televised debates were revealing only in so far as the performance of leaders could be assessed. With an increasingly cynical media, politicians have to be at the top of their game and little quarter is given. Inevitably, the FG and Labour leaders came under sustained enemy fire and appeared defensive. In my view, the Labour Party erred in leaving it too late to decouple itself from Fine Gael. The biggest threat facing the smaller party in coalition is losing definition and seeming to morph into the larger coalition party. Such was the cohesion of the Government, it blurred the join between two totally distinct political ideologies. This perceived abandonment of classic Labour Party values and principles, albeit in the national interest, has allowed the hard Left and Sinn Féin to "pulverise" Labour in the media and on the streets. On water charges, on low pay, on housing and social supports, Labour has been portrayed, however unfairly, as selling out to Fine Gael sensibilities.
Many excellent Labour TDs face losing their seats, and the party will be culled to single figures. It would be a loss to politics if Labour leader Joan Burton and other experienced colleagues are defeated. The truth is, as with the PDs and Greens, Labour is emerging from government short-changed and bearing a disproportionate share of voter disapproval.
But Fine Gael, too, will take a hiding, if the polls are to be trusted. The gap now between Fine Gael and the old enemy is very narrow and could close even more as voters shift at the last moment. All the borrowed Fianna Fáil votes which fled temporarily in 2011 have migrated back to the mother ship. One of these parties will form a government with a variety of others. It will not be elegant and it will take some time. The option of some class of a shared administration made up of these centrist parties is dismissed out of hand by both sides, despite its appeal to ordinary people. Many view the old Civil War quarrel as phoney and outdated.
Concerns about the inexorable rise of Sinn Féin as the main party in opposition in the event of such an alliance is exaggerated. Neurosis about that party's ambitions are unimportant compared to the overwhelming national interest in having a stable, experienced government broadly reflective of the will of the people. Fianna Fáil's last-minute offer to share power with Labour was masterful. "Parity of esteem" looks like a tempting lifeline for a demoralised party and may influence transfers. When it comes to senior hurling, it's hard to beat Fianna Fáil.