#GE16 is shaping up to be a three (and 4/3) horse race…

I cannot think of a country whose politics is quite as malleable as Ireland’s: by which I mean the Republic, not the northern eastern bit. We take a stubborn prize in changing so slowly that our supporters barely notice the change.

So now Micheal Martin’s professing that Fianna Fail is “a bit to the left”.  That will annoy some on the right of the party, but its probably his single most effective achievement not allow the party to go raging off to the right and give them somewhere reasonably solid to hit Fine Gael from.

We are a bit to the left; historically we always have been in terms of social services, in terms of education, in terms of the health services,” he said.

“We are a party of the centre, we are not to the right of the centre. We very much believe in strong, publicly funded social services with a fair taxation system that would enable us to pay for that.

“We are pro-enterprise in facilitating indigenous companies to be able to create employment.”

And there’s Sinn Fein, who went into the last election advocating an Argentine style economic default, now adopting one of Fianna Fail’s earlier talking points of ‘a fair recovery’ after all Twitter leave was cancelled for their TDs over Christmas.

As Jason O’Mahony points out in his state of the parties blog, patience is always their ace card. On Labour, he’s not so sanguine, who he says…

…feel like the old Irish Home Rule party refusing to believe that things have changed. Pity: they haven’t been that bad in government, but they promised so so much.

It no longer seems to matter that Fine Gael pointed their ship of recovery along a line almost entirely set for them by Fianna Fail. This year the boom has gotten so boomier to the point that the current account deficit barely exists.

Stealing direction from your opponents is what successful political parties do. And in Fine Gael’s case the prize will be an historic second term. Barring unforeseen events (dear boy) it’s as near as dammit a done deal. They remain hungry, focused and with a decent story to tell.

The question is how will they get there? Although it has been pushed hard for two or three years now, the grand coalition with FF is highly unlikely. FF’s messages may be fuzzy and the narrative unclear, but the machine is in working order and they have good candidates coming through.

More importantly they need a year or two on the opposition benches to rebuild, replenish and prepare for longer term challenges. Media speculation in the last term about heaves against Martin mistook real tensions and grumblings as a serious jostling for leadership. There was no alternative.

SF won’t bite either, for two primary reasons. One, the party thrives as a protest movement. And you cannot do that in government. The ‘2016 in government’ narrative is, I suspect little more than a big juicy piece of rump steak thrown at northern journos to maximise a sense of their ambition.

Secondly, unlike Northern Ireland where coming second to the DUP confers co-equal status, Sinn Fein know (every bit as well as FF) that coming second in a voluntary coalition in Leinster House is the deadliest third rail of all in Irish politics.

Whatever the Dublin press are saying, as long as FG is clearly out in front neither scenario will happen. FG will have to patch up something from Labour, Renua, the Soc Dems and/or the rag bag independent rest. Or, they might just have do it all on their own.

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