A relatively lacklustre election campaign in the 26 Counties erupted into farce in its final days with claims and counter claims among the establishment parties about ‘what to do with Sinn Féin’.
Amid final preparations for Friday’s vote, the two coalition parties -- Fianna Fail and the Green Party -- stood accused of playing games with Fine Gael over whether that party was interested in a deal with Sinn Féin which would allow them to head an alternative coalition government.
Following remarks by the Fine Gael director of elections Frank Flannery that such a deal was possible, desperate attempts were made by several parties to seize the headlines and advance a reactionary agenda ahead of Friday’s election.
Justice Minister Dermot Ahern seized on the statement, absurdly claiming that it would be “stomach churning” to form a pact with Sinn Féin.
Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams slammed the comments and said that the minister, who was directly involved in the northern political process until last year, was well aware that Sinn Féin was working very hard in the interests of peace.
Although most of the major parties in the 26 Counties have military origins Sinn Féin has long been marginalised because of its former links to the IRA.
The row is closely related to the tight race for the third Euro seat in Dublin.
The contest, which is likely to be between Sinn Féin, Fianna Fail, and the Socialist Party, is being seen as a potential decider for the continuation of the current coalition government.
If sitting Fianna Fail MEP Eoin Ryan fails to hold his seat, leaving Dublin represented by Fine Gael and two left-wing candidates, it would mark an important shift in the political make-up of the country.
The direction of second preferences among all of the candidates’ votes will decide the matter.
Coupled with predicted losses in the local elections and an approval rate of just 10% in public opinion polls, the current government will come under enormous pressure to dissolve or be actively replaced.
The potential for an alternative coalition, with Sinn Féin support, will increase following the two Dail by-elections, also being held on Friday.
Flannery should “consider his position” for suggesting the possibility of a pact with Sinn Féin to replace the current government, Taoiseach Brian Cowen said.
Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny ruled it out. But he and the Green Party loudly clashed over a claim that Kenny previously asked the Greens to ‘sound out’ Sinn Féin support for a rainbow coalition in 2007.
Both parties flatly contradicted each other’s version of events, and made new claims and counterclaims.
Trevor Sargent, the former Green Party leader, said he had been asked to act as a “conduit” to Sinn Féin.
He said: “The only way I can rationalise it is that Enda Kenny had some experience in the ballrooms of romance in Mayo when he asked a fellow to ask your sister ‘Will she got out with me?’.”
The comments seemed designed to portray Mr Kenny as a weak and indecisive individual, incapable of forging his own coalition government or of facing up to the potentially historic decision to include Sinn Féin in a Dublin government.
Although Mr Sargent insisted he refused, he also said he mentioned the approach to Sinn Féin Dail leader Caoimhghin O Caolain, who “laughed” in response.
Green Party leader John Gormley claimed that three approaches had been made in total by Fine Gael to the Greens to act as “emissaries” or “messenger boys”.
Fine Gael accused the Greens of “trying to rewrite history” in a desperate and despicable fashion. Mr Kenny described the claims as “absurd”.
“If I wanted to contact Sinn Féin I would speak to them myself. It was never my intention to use, and I would never use, the Green Party as a conduit to somebody else,” he said at a Fine Gael press conference.
“If I had been prepared to do business with Sinn Féin after the last election I would have been taoiseach for the past two years.”
However, the question of when Fine Gael will ‘do business’ with Sinn Féin remains to be answered, and was further confused by an intervention from former Fine Gael leader abd Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald.
He bizarrely calling on his party’s supporters to back Fianna Fail’s Eoin Ryan ahead of the smaller political parties, particularly Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald.
Mr FitzGerald said Fine Gael supporters should give their second preferences to “pro-Lisbon Treaty” candidates in an apparent bid to prevent the growth of Sinn Féin, the Socialist Party and the new pan-European political party, Libertas.
“If that means Fianna Fail people voting down the line for Gay Mitchell, fair enough, and if it means Fine Gael people or Labour voting for Eoin Ryan before Higgins or McDonald, then that’s the way it should be,” he told Irish radio.
Fianna Fail also urged their supporters in the European North West constituency to use their transfers to block the smaller parties, and instead transfer their votes to the main opposition parties such as Fine Gael and Labour.
Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams said the various claims and transfer appeals were “completely irrelevant” but that there would be strong transfers among the anti-government parties and independents.
“Friday is the voters’ day, the day that they will have their say on Fianna Fail and the economy,” he said.
“There is a mood for change out there. There is huge anger. People want to see a break with the politics of the past. I think over the last 48 hours people have started to make up their minds and there is a swing towards Sinn Féin.”
“People need to turn their anger into action. If people want a party that will stand up for Ireland, that will stand up for ordinary people and ordinary communities, then they should vote for Sinn Féin in the local government, the European and the by elections.
“The momentum is building behind Sinn Féin - in the North Bairbre de Brun is on course to retain her seat. In the North West and in the South, Padraig Mac Lochlainn and Toireasa Ferris arer in the fight for seats. Mary Lou McDonald is in a head to head with Fianna Fail in Dublin but she needs every single vote to retain the seat.
“In Dublin Central, Christy Burke is neck and neck with Fine Gael. In the South by-election and the East EU constituency, we will return a much increased vote.”
* Film director Ken Loach accused former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern of trying to hijack the premiere of a film starring French soccer star Eric Cantona for electoral purposes.
Loach said he was “disgusted by the cheap interventions” of Mr Ahern, who turned up at the premiere of ‘Looking for Eric’ on Tuesday evening at the Light House cinema in Dublin’s Smithfield.
Mr Ahern appeared with his brother Maurice, who is standing for Fianna Fail in the Dublin Central byelection.
Just before the premiere started, the Ahern brothers presented Cantona with a No 7 Dublin shirt with the legendary former Manchester United footballer’s name on the back. The brothers then left before the film started.
Loach said Cantona had “not a clue” who Bertie Ahern was. “I just thought it was cheap and I hope that people saw through it,” he said.
“It made us irritated that this was just a political operator trying to hijack someone who was famous and well-respected for his own ends. It just demeans him, really, and his brother.”
* The ballot boxes form the 26 County elections will be emptied on Saturday morning. Counting in the local elections will then proceed on Saturday but the Euro count will not begin until 9pm on Sunday night when polling stations across the EU have closed.
The count in the two Dublin byelections will take place on Saturday and results should be available that evening.
Results will be published here as soon as they become available.