With Sinn Fein topping opinion polls in the 26 Counties for the first time, an ambush of party leader Mary Lou McDonald by state broadcaster RTE over a comment by a party colleague 13 years ago has jeopardised what is still widely expected to be a good election for the party.
Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin, Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar and Ms McDonald took part in their last televised leaders’ debate on Tuesday night ahead of Saturday’s general election.
With a record audience, it was the first time most of the Irish public had an opportunity to hear the main partners in the outgoing confidence-and-supply government pact presented with an alternative.
On the housing crisis, Ms McDonald tore into the record of the past two decades of right-wing government.
She said: “The reality is each in their individual ways... have created this crisis. Fianna Fáil was and is the party of property developers, and Fine Gael is the party of landlords.”
Micheál Martin was forced to deny suggestions he has been in power for the last four years as “the big lie of the campaign” -- but within moments had contradicted himself, claiming he had “managed to bring about great change”.
Ms McDonald shrank away from criticism of the Supreme Criminal Court, which has been condemned by the UN for denying the right to a jury trial and other limitations imposed on defendants. In an unexpected change of policy which dismayed progressives, Ms McDonald said that she only wanted to see a review of the court.
It had been expected that Sinn Fein would be the main target of the night and so it transpired.
The biggest talking point of the night was a choreographed attack over comments made 13 years ago by the North’s current Finance Minister, Conor Murphy. In a 2007 television documentary, he linked the victim of a brutal assault to criminality. While Murphy’s comments were identical to others made at at the time, including by the police and by the then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, they were never withdrawn, leaving a hostage to fortune which was capitalised on by the staunchly anti-republican RTE on Tuesday night.
At a crucial moment in the campaign and before a giant television audience, it was revealed that footage of the comments existed. It was a difficult moment for the Sinn Fein leader, Ms McDonald, who said Mr Murphy would apologise.
The embarrassment served to highlight one of the themes of the Sinn Fein campaign, which has been the displacement of the party’s ‘old guard’ with new policies and candidates ready for government. Despite the furore in the mainstream media, and with a very strong desire for change among voters, the party is still within reach of becoming king-maker in a new potential coalition government.
Appealing directly to voters, Ms McDonald said: “It is right to say the theme of this election has emerged as a thirst for change.
“People have said to me that they recognise that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael - essentially identical parties - have had it all their own way now for almost a century”.
“People increasingly recognise Sinn Féin as an alternative.”
One of the party’s most prominent spokespersons, Eoin O Broin, said he believes the polls are showing the voters are motivated by policies, not by party politics.
“I think people are fed up of politicians going on TV shows and not knowing what they are talking about and making it up. I’m serious. Making it up.
“What I have done, what Pearse [Doherty] has done, what Louise [O’Reilly] has done is say okay, we have policies, we understand the facts and figures. TDs are exceptionally well paid, we have staff. The very least you can do is know the subject.”
The party’s canvas in the constituency is one of the most intense, with the canvas team targeting 1,000 homes every day.
On Tuesday he was canvassing with fellow TD Mark Ward in Clondalkin in Dublin, elected just last month in a by-election. It is a big ask to win two seats in the four-seater constituency of Dublin Mid-West, bt if what is registered in the opinion polls is reflected in the actual poll this weekend, Sinn Féin may regret not running two candidates in many more constituencies.
Mr Ward said his party would consider a government with any party. “We will speak to anybody,” he said. But we will be going in with the red line issues around health, housing and infrastructure.”
When asked if Sinn Féin would be better off doing another spell in opposition, and leave the two main parties to further coalesce, he says: “Well, we are not going to be the hurlers in the ditch.”
He says it is his genuine belief “that we should be in that conversation on how the programme for government is formed.”
FINE GAEL RECRIMINATIONS
Meanwhile, Fine Gael is in full crisis mode as it is set to lose more than 15 seats, according to the polls, with several senior ministers in jeopardy. Senior party figures have privately conceded the election will “not go our way” and the party’s time in government is coming to an end.
“We cannot win. The tide of change is too strong. We just need to try and keep as many seats as we can,” said one minister, according to reports today.
Predictions, both external and internal, emerged suggesting that the party could return with as few as 32 seats. Such a result would see several Cabinet ministers in danger of losing their seats in the Dublin parliament. Even the Taoiseach’s is said to be in danger.
Internally, recrimination is already emerging about the Fine Gael campaign’s decision to promote their Brexit ‘achievement’, as well as the disastrous plan to commemorate those who fought for Britain during the War of Independence.
“The campaign has been a f*cking disaster,” one senior party figure was reported as saying. “The D4 [Dublin 4] boys ran it again and it hasn’t worked.”
* The polling stations are open between 7am to 10pm on Saturday, February 8th. An exit poll is due to be released when polls close. Counting begins at 9am on Sunday morning. Irish Republican News will keep you updated with all the breaking news as it transpires over the weekend.