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Martina Devlin: What this election needs is some true sex appeal

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IT'S been difficult to concentrate on the election campaign this week, with so many sensational political twists and turns elsewhere in the world.

First, we hear about a call for politicians' wives to go on a sex strike in Belgium, then we learn the Italian premier is to be tried on charges of paying for underage sex with a teenager.

An ironic development occurred in the Silvio Berlusconi case when three judges were chosen at random in the interests of fairness -- and all three turned out to be women.

Back home, the most headline grabbing element is Fine Gael's seemingly unstoppable rise, which is possibly fuelled by voters' fears that Labour intends to raise taxes.

Compared with other political stages, it's not exactly a campaign oozing animal magnetism. Then again, the last time we had seduction in an Irish election campaign was back in Parnell's time and that was more sex scandal than sex appeal. Perhaps the Irish don't do sex, except furtively.

The battle is distinctly lacking in, well, sexiness -- which is another way of saying it isn't setting people aflame.

Voters are challenging politicians on issues, discussing matters of national interest, rather than the number 11 bus route.

This is positive, but we need some personality mixed in with policy. Politics is about people as well as principles.

Looking at the leaders in action as they criss-cross the country, there is no one we burn to follow in the way other electorates responded to Obama, Blair or Sarkozy. The five-way debate on Monday night was a reminder of that, as was yesterday's three-hander as Gaeilge.

Like it or not, sex appeal is a key component in politics, as in life.

Obviously, we don't want to go down the Berlusconi route, but some sexual allure -- even just a subdued hint of it -- wouldn't go amiss. Line up the men who would be Taoiseach together and it's a fundamentally depressing sight.

I'm not recommending that we parachute in Colin Farrell to run, but those five leaders are dull to look at and only intermittently interesting to listen to -- for all their ostensible differences. They light no fires.

Monday's debate has been comprehensively deconstructed, so I'll avoid the nitty gritty, but the contender I thought performed best was Gerry Adams. While his figures are Fantasy Island territory, he showed flashes of personality and passion. More importantly, he connected with viewers.

Over and over, as I tail candidates on the stump, I hear Sinn Fein cited as worth a vote by people who never chose the party before.

These voters, previously Fianna Fail or Labour supporters, like what they hear from the party. It certainly explains why Micheal Martin squared up to Adams during the debate.

The latest opinion poll published in this newspaper yesterday, putting Fianna Fail only two percentage points ahead of Sinn Fein at 12pc, is further corroboration.

What Sinn Fein says about politicians' pay and pensions is registering. Voters see them as a party apart from the consensus -- outsiders in a society of insiders. And right now, that's an enticing position. To some extent, the Sinn Fein vote is a protest one, just as a vote for Independents will be.

Fine Gael looks like a racing certainty to take up office, however. Attention is already focusing on who it might form a government with if an overall majority eludes the party.

If Independents are invited to prop up Enda's army, negotiations could prove protracted with so many wishlists. Some Independents are described as high-maintenance partners, indicating that they won't sell themselves cheaply.

But time has been lost and it makes sense for the new administration to horse-trade quickly before hitting the ground running. People have high hopes for this 31st Dail, with all the parties promising sweeping political reform.

WHAT if that's simply pre-polling day sweet talk, though? What if politicians revert to type as soon as their feet are under the table? A host of pressing concerns will be clamouring for their attention and reform may be allowed to slip down the agenda. We can't allow this to happen.

A fascinating precedent for how pressure can be exerted on politicians is offered by Belgium. You could call it the 'just say no' tactic.

Belgium has been without a government for 250 days and has now beaten Iraq's record as the country to shilly-shally the longest after an election about forming a government. And we thought our by-election moratorium was anti-democratic.

A Belgian senator is urging politicians' wives (and presumably their lovers or her plan won't work) to cross their legs and withhold marital privileges until the predominantly male establishment stops bickering.

Belgians have proved remarkably patient with parties unable to settle their differences. Taking to the streets has had no impact, but staying home and going on strike in the bedroom might just concentrate minds.

The idea originates in ancient Greece, in satirist Aristophanes' play 'Lysistrata', in which the women take a vow of chastity until their husbands sign a peace treaty. A similar, week-long boycott worked in Kenya two years ago, when conflict between the president and prime minister risked undermining the country.

It's surprising that a sex strike hasn't been mentioned as a persuader in Italy, where women are incensed by the sordid stories surrounding Berlusconi -- an estimated one million of them have been demonstrating. The Italian prime minister has his troubles, most of them self-inflicted, but he emerges as a figure to make us feel less depressed about the state of our politics in Ireland.

Political reform must happen, all the same. It is the golden apple being dangled before all of us during this campaign. If it proves to be a mirage, there are ways of helping the political class to focus, as our Belgian sisters remind us.

Irish Independent