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With five days to go, five key topics can help figure where the election is heading

John Downing


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RTE TV debate. Photo: PA

RTE TV debate. Photo: PA

PA

RTE TV debate. Photo: PA

John Downing on where the election is heading....

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1. How did we get here?

The answer is surely in a photograph taken one week ago ahead of the RTÉ seven-leaders' debate chaired by Claire Byrne. One of the seven, Richard Boyd Barrett of Solidarity/People Before Profit, was never in government - and won't be until "the red revolution brings us free beer for all the workers".

But five of the others were in government, some of them as much as three times. The one exception was Mary Lou McDonald, leader of Sinn Féin.

When this election was called on Tuesday, January 14, nobody foresaw it entering its final days with opinion polls putting Fianna Fáil just fractionally ahead of Fine Gael and Sinn Féin right up there at the top.

There is some educated guesswork needed to decode the whys here. But it seems reasonable to proffer that Fine Gael sauntered out and said: We managed Brexit and the economy - put us back and we'll fix our under-performance on housing and health.

Then cue Fianna Fáil which said: We know you need a change from Fine Gael. Surely you'll try us. The party almost silently added it made the past four-year government led by Fine Gael possible. It tried to avoid mention of 14 recent years at the helm which ended in economic calamity.

There is support research to tell us the public want change. It's reasonable to say many voters do not see Fianna Fáil as likely to bring something new.

2. Why is Sinn Féin so popular?

Maybe it's more about the others lacking popularity. Sinn Féin had a wretched presidential election in October 2018 which was repeated in May 2018 in European and local council votes. It lost 78 councillors, for example.

The morning after this election was called, Sinn Féin strategists were quietly admitting the campaign might be more about damage limitation than anything else. Their plan to nominate 42 candidates in 38 of the 39 Dáil constituencies reflects this defensive view.

They have managed the campaign well, leveraging maximum exposure out of the justified exclusion from the "big two debates" by both RTÉ and Virgin Media.

Those debate decisions are based on outgoing Dáil strength - Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil each had twice Sinn Féin's TD numbers. And they are also based on more recent elections where Sinn Féin did badly. Opinion polls have only a peripheral bearing.

Sinn Féin also came up with humdinging populist giveaways - whether the taxpayer can afford them or not is for another day. The party also has top-class media performers in Mary Lou McDonald herself, Pearse Doherty and Eoin Ó Broin.

Its heavy playing of the 'anybody but Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil' card proved timely and fortunate. Sinn Féin may not do as well as the pollsters predict but the party will do well.

3. Could Fianna Fáil still win though?

Yes. While it is hard to see redemption for Fine Gael, which could hover below or slightly above 40 seats, things might be less negative for Fianna Fáil.

It is already playing the 'Phil Hogan 2011 card'. Senator Ned O'Sullivan of Fianna Fáil was quick out of the traps when news of the latest opinion polls broke, citing Big Phil's 2011 Fine Gael appeal for "the loan of Fianna Fáil votes". Reversing the call he dubbed it a "Vote Against the Army Council".

We shall hear more in the coming days and some voters, across all parties, who still intensely mistrust Sinn Féin might "put up" with Fianna Fáil on the basis of "my enemy's enemy is my friend".

Fianna Fáil set out on this campaign believing Micheál Martin would lead it to about 60 Dáil seats, hopefully slightly north of that figure. From there, coalition with the Green Party, Labour, perhaps the Social Democrats and Independents and others, looked doable.

This weekend's poll by Red C for the 'Business Post' makes that look a great deal harder. If the party is stuck on 24pc, it could be nearer 50 than 60 TDs.

It is hard to be too precise. There are up to 30 of the 39 constituencies where the vagaries of our beloved PR voting system cannot be reliably predicted. Fianna Fáil exited Dáil Éireann with 46 TDs and definitely will gain some more - but it is also at risk of losses in some places.

A base of around 50 TDs would render coalition-making a very tall order for Mr Martin - though it is still possible.

4. What about a 'Reverse Ferret' confidence and supply?

Yes again - that is possible. Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil leadership have reluctantly made it known that "in the national interest" they will once more be as flexible as possible to make stable government available.

Last time, Fianna Fáil agreed to do the necessary to allow Fine Gael lead a minority hybrid coalition.

Now, if it is in second place in terms of Dáil seats with Sinn Féin breathing down Fianna Fail necks, there might be little Fine Gael choice beyond returning the compliment.

It could be a grim option for citizens with a return to government at pace of the slowest. But better than another inconclusive general election.

5. Any chance of a grand coalition?

We'll have to ask Fianna Fáil that one. After the last election Fine Gael offered to co-operate in such a venture and a rotating Taoiseach was in all likelihood to be part of it. But Micheál Martin answered 'no' emphatically. This time it might be harder to rule out in a hung Dáil.

Irish Independent