Practice over as parties joust for position on the starting grid
More political choices than ever, but who will be on the ballot paper when we next go to the polls, asks Philip Ryan
THE chequered flag may not yet have dropped but the practice laps are over and politicians are now jousting for position in the qualifying stages of the next General Election.
With engines revved, our prospective and current legislators are burning rubber as they round the country at top speed (but within the legal limits) seeking to entice candidates into their fledgling or established parties.
Fine Gael's erstwhile Minister of State Lucinda Creighton packed her 4x4 with 'Reboot Ireland' paraphernalia and set off on a nationwide canvass of the country's middle class housing estates.
In the passenger seat, financial commentator Eddie Hobbs is charged with operating the GPS, while little-known Offaly councillor John Leahy will be in the back, asking: "Are we there yet?"
Over Christmas, man of the soil and Independent TD Michael Fitzmaurice spent most of his time travelling the country to meet potential candidates for his new political movement.
Along the way, he seems to have met South Dublin's Shane Ross, who convinced the turf cutter to play Muttley to his Dick Dastardly, or perhaps it's the other way around.
Either way, the race to Kildare Street has heated up in recent weeks and various factions and fractions are growing evermore interesting.
The Ross/Fitzmaurice non-party alliance of unwhipped Independents is a long way off a tangible entity which would give voters confidence to put a tick on the ballot.
We are told there will be principles but not what they will be. We are told there will be no whip but not how the party, excuse me, alliance, will pass legislation if they cannot get agreement.
We were also told Finian McGrath, Mattie McGrath, Noel Grealish, Tom Fleming, John Halligan and Stephen Donnelly have signed up to the alliance.
But even those names might be pre-emptive, since some have yet to meet either Ross or Fitzmaurice to formally pledge their allegiance.
Waterford TD John Halligan said he will meet Ross but insists on running as an Independent. He also expects an understanding within the alliance that members will be free to go into Government with other parties on their own if the entire group does not have the numbers.
On the left, Richard Boyd Barrett is hoping to reunite the United Left Alliance but he is likely to find resistance from those burnt by the first outing. Former member Joan Collins, who is interested in his proposal, has her doubts about reaching consensus with the bigger political organisations on the left which foisted their ideas on other members first time round. "If there was something to be set up on the left, the likes of the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party would need to properly fold into what we would be doing," she said.
Meanwhile, over at 51 Mount Street, Fine Gael is edging towards full swing election mode despite denying we will be going anywhere near polling booths in the coming year. They might not want to discuss an election under the watchful eye of Vincent Browne but the party is certainly preparing to go before the electorate. After an earful from his TDs and Senators before Christmas, Taoiseach Enda Kenny has organised individual meetings to hear their grievances - and there are many. Most of the agitation was directed towards Kenny's advisers, who party members complain were blocking access to the boss.
There have also been some organisational and personnel changes in the Taoiseach's office and in Fine Gael headquarters with a view to preparing for an election.
There is no immediate threat to Kenny's leadership but some suggest he has less than three months to turn the party around before a heave is formally discussed.
Exiled election strategist Frank Flannery looks set for a return to the backrooms of Fine Gael. Despite some misgivings about Flannery's time in Rehab, most party members admit his expertise is needed more than ever. "We'd be completely fu**ed without him," one senior figure bluntly said.
Flannery's 'phoenix from the flames' moment also comes as Kenny prepares for waves of internal party backlash against his plans to parachute female candidates into constituencies to meet gender quotas.
Fianna Fail is also facing an identity crisis.
Leader Micheal Martin is on tenterhooks with his popularity dropping in the polls, despite Fianna Fail being the biggest party in local government.
John McGuinness has made no secret of his desire for a change of leadership but this is not a view shared by enough members to oust Martin. That's not to say they would not like a change, they just don't like the choices.
Fianna Fail stalwart Willie O'Dea refused to rule out coalition with Sinn Fein when asked recently. Martin, on the other hand, completely ruled out such a deal and even claimed Sinn Fein was still run by the IRA.
The last six months were a mixed bag for Gerry Adams. His party surged in the polls but he was badly damaged by the Mairia Cahill sex abuse controversy.
He will lead his party into the next election with his obedient deputy leader, Mary Lou McDonald, by his side.
Then there's Labour, where Joan Burton is spending more time talking about Sinn Fein than both Mary Lou or Gerry, and doing little to restore faith in her party.