Stephen Collins: TDs are focused on re-election not legislation
Some signs that panic is beginning to take hold in the Labour ranks as TDs head for their constituencies
The sight of Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture Ann Phelan piloting a piece of legislation through committee and final stages all on her own drew some adverse comment in the media but Government and Opposition TDs were unrepentant about abandoning the chamber
The Dáil adjourned for Christmas with a minimum of the ritual shouting and roaring that usually marks the end of a parliamentary session. It was as if the parties were reserving all their strength for the election which is now within touching distance.
The chamber was even emptier than usual during the week as TDs focused on constituency work and the campaign ahead rather than engaging in debate on the legislation wending its way through the House.
The sight of the Minister of State for Agriculture, Ann Phelan, piloting a piece of legislation through committee and final stages all on her own drew some adverse comment in the media but Government and Opposition TDs were unrepentant about abandoning the chamber.
At this stage in the life of the 32nd Dáil the consuming obsession of every TD standing for election is holding on to their seat.
Speaking on legislation doesn’t butter many parsnips in terms of publicity or votes at the best of times, and in the final days of the Dáil the only thing that matters is the election battle ahead.
The Coalition parties are facing into that contest from starkly different perspectives.
Fine Gael has begun to put on support at exactly the right time in the electoral cycle, and if it can keep up the momentum it stands to put in a good performance or possibly even a great one.
The party’s message is clear and concise. Vote for stability and the continuation of economic recovery.
With growth now roaring ahead at 7 per cent, Fine Gael will do all in its power to keep the focus on the economy and convince voters it is the only party capable of managing it in the years ahead.
By contrast, the Labour Party remains becalmed at less than half the support it won in 2011, and so far there has been no sign of a significant swing back to the party as the election moves ever closer, despite the litany of good economic news.
There are now some signs that panic is beginning to take hold in the Labour ranks, with a number of TDs saying they should not go back into government with Fine Gael unless they win at least 15 seats.
The one sure thing is that if Labour panics when the starting gun for the election goes off and presents the electorate with confused signals about what it intends to do in the aftermath, the result truly will be a disaster.
It must be galling for Labour that it has not benefited from the economic upturn but has suffered the blame for the tough decisions that were required to underpin it.
Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin played a key role in getting public spending under control, but the glory for the country’s increasingly healthy budgetary position usually goes to Minister for Finance Michael Noonan.
However dispiriting it must be to see Fine Gael getting the lion’s share of the credit for the recovery, the worst thing Labour could do at this stage would be to give voters the impression that it might not go back into government even if the Coalition parties have the numbers.
Balance and stability
If that impression takes hold Fine Gael will have the stability argument all to themselves.
The Labour argument that its presence in government is required to provide balance and stability is a subtle one which has not yet got much traction with the electorate. The challenge of the campaign will be to find a way to sell that message.
Fianna Fáil has an equally difficult message to sell. The party is hoping to double its number of seats to about 40. It doesn’t want to go into coalition with either Fine Gael or Sinn Féin, whatever the outcome. However, by effectively ruling itself out of government it risks marginalising itself.
In last year’s local elections Fianna Fáil managed to do much better than its standing in the polls had indicated. The party is hoping to confound expectations again with the strength of local candidates, but the general election will be a far more testing experience.
Like Fine Gael and Labour, Fianna Fáil will be trying to appeal to voters who are open to the stability argument, but its problem is that unless it comes up with a clear message about what it will do in the event of a hung Dáil it could leak support to Fine Gael in the run-in to polling day.
The other side of the coin is that the polls indicate that almost half the electorate does not appear to regard that as an important issue at all.
The anti-establishment vote appears to be split almost equally between Sinn Féin and a variety of others, including the smaller left-wing parties and a range of Independents of left, right and centre.
These forces appeal most strongly to poorer and younger voters, and one of the big questions is whether the traditionally lower turnout among these groups will make for an election result that differs significantly from the polls of the past five years.
Sinn Féin is still vulnerable to concerns about the violent past of the republican movement. The fact that party leader Gerry Adams could not bring himself to condemn the activities of leading republican “Slab” Murphy again brought home the party’s ambivalence about the democratic institutions of the State.
As for the smaller parties and Independents, the question is whether the array of candidates will cancel each other out or roll together to elect an Independent in almost all 40 constituencies.
We won’t have to wait much longer to find out.