Dáil election campaign not going to script for government parties

WHEN all else fails, it's time to conjure the bogeyman.

With barely a week left to convince an apparently ungrateful electorate of the merits of returning the present government, an exasperated Fine Gael-Labour coalition has gone negative.

The problem for the outgoing government is that it appears the only card left to play.

Political analysts expected Fine Gael to coast home based on its economic recovery credentials, and there was a time the party was probably even hoping for an overall majority, but the great unwashed simply do not appear to be buying into the apparent economic recovery Taoiseach Enda Kenny's party is claiming the credit for.

During this campaign Mr Kenny's party has also promised significant tax cuts and spending increases over the next five years but this doesn't seem to working either.

So, apparently it's time to get down and dirty.

At the launch of his party's manifesto last Sunday Mr Kenny warned of replicating the travails of Portugal following its election last year of a left-leaning government.

“On the 26th of February, Ireland will make its decision: Ireland will decide whether Ireland will go forward or backwards.

“It will decide whether the recovery is strengthened and protected or put at risk. Believe me, that risk is real.

“The implications are real because political stability and economic stability go hand in hand.”

The problem for the government parties is that its smug self-congratulatory backslapping on the economic recovery is not travelling well beyond the narrow confines of Leinster House.

As well as the credit, the government parties are also shipping the blame for the continued mess in healthcare, the rise in homelessness, spiralling rents, social housing waiting lists and myriad other ills.

The least the coalition probably expected was to win by default against a disparate opposition but again, with a week to go, there is little sign of this happening.

On Wednesday the latest national opinion poll saw further Fine Gael slippage to 26%, three points behind Independents and others on 29% and sliding ever closer to the party's perceived main political rivals, Fianna Fáil (20%) and Sinn Féin (17%).

The Red C poll gives support for the current coalition at 34%, far short of the combined 44% it needs and way down on the 55% it managed in the 2011 election.

Ominously too for a campaign focused on how well the recovery is going, 56% of those polled said they weren't feeling any recovery.

With the juggernaut spending of the big parties moving into top gear, support for Independents and smaller parties was also expected to be ebbing away at this juncture but there is no sign of this – in fact, the opposite is the case.

ALL POLITICS IS LOCAL

In urban areas voters tend to regard Michael Healy Rae as the very incarnation of the gombeen politician. The flat-cap, the homespun philosophy and the unashamed peddler of nakedly parochial parish-pump politics in return for votes appears an atavistic throwback rather than a fitting representative of a modern, socially progressive state.

But few would back against him topping the constituency poll from his remote Kilgarvan base in rural Co Kerry and the way this election is shaping up he, like his father Jackie before him, will be drawing up a shopping list of local issues when an aspirant government comes calling.

Fine Gael has ruled out a coalition with either Fianna Fáil or Sinn Féin.

This leaves a possible Fine Gael deal with Labour and sympathetic Independents or, whisper it, a possible Sinn Féin-Fianna Fáil pact as part of a rainbow coalition involving Independents and smaller left-wing parties, though Fianna Fáil has also ruled out governing alongside Sinn Féin.

Mr Healy Rae, who added his brother Danny to the ticket at the last minute such is his confidence, regaled the Irish Examiner newspaper with a flavour of the power derived from fixing potholes, sorting planning permissions and talking tough on rural crime.

“I had to go to Waterville because a friend of mine, Danny O’Mahony, died, and it was sad because I knew him an awful long time. He was 85, a great campaigner for us, a warrior, and a very nice man.

“When he was laid out inside the coffin last night, his family put a canvass card for me up in his hand, between his fingers, so everybody who came in, he was canvassing them for me.

“Even though the poor man was gone to his eternal walk, he was still working. It was very touching.”

WIDER DEBATES

Despite the barrage of negativity, Sinn Féin support has been considered remarkably solid in a week where it had to weather further criticism over its support for the abolition of the Special Criminal Court and its tax policies.

Gerry Adams fared well in both leaders' debates despite a couple of howlers along the way when challenged on the fine detail of policy.

Probably the most notable aspect of Monday night's Leaders' debate on RTE TV - aside from the performance of the smaller parties in the seven-way slugfest - was the composition of the audience and the resulting reaction to the so-called establishment parties of Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil.

Unlike most debates stacked by political hacks, the audience in Limerick was selected on a representative basis by the Red C polling company and its anger was plain see by its reaction to the policy statements of Mr Kenny, Labour leader Joan Burton and Fianna Fáil's Micheál Martin.

It certainly didn't seem to swallow the rhetoric about economic recovery; nor, judging by the applause for the smaller parties and Mr Adams, did it seem to buy the government message that it was a clear choice between stability or chaos.

With only a week to go it remains all to play for.

Unless something dramatic happens, this has all the makings of a hung parliament. Unless, that is, more people begin to believe in the story of the bogeyman.