Matt Cooper on the election.

From empty chairs to empty promises, expect the unexpected11/02/2011By Matt Cooper HERE are some of my random thoughts about the general election campaign to date. Significance is not indicated by their order:

1. Individual parties and candidates can offer little that involves the substantial spending of money. Whoever is in government is going to have its hands tied by the terms of the deal the outgoing government agreed with the IMF and EU. It means that so-called auction politics is out of the question. It has also meant that many of the financial promises being made by parties are being ignored by a wise electorate. That said, it hasn’t stopped some of them trying.

2. Fine Gael seems to have written off the public sector as a likely source of votes. It has spoken, for example, of 30,000 job cuts in the sector, not far short of 10% of the existing workforce. Not surprisingly there has been a furious reaction among those likely to be affected. But how many of those opponents to the loosely constructed Fine Gael plan — that Labour in coalition would likely neuter — had actually intended to vote for Fine Gael anyway? Whatever losses may be incurred among the ranks of the public sector may be compensated for through additional votes in the private sector. It is a gamble though.

3. Any government that looks for money from the IMF to pay for public sector job cuts is likely to get it. Much has been made of the estimated €1 billion cost of a redundancy programme but if Enda Kenny can prove his contention of savings amounting to €10 billion over a decade then he’d get the money as an investment, be it the right or wrong thing to do.

4. Fianna Fáil got very lucky with the timing of Michael Martin’s accession to power. If the party had changed leader after Brian Cowen’s drinking incident in Galway last September the new leader would have been deeply wounded by overseeing the descent into surrender to the IMF. Martin, if he had served as Taoiseach, even for a brief period, would not be able to campaign as he is doing now.

5. Eamon Gilmore’s best hopes of leading a government after the election may rest with Fianna Fáil. Despite his pleadings to the electorate the opinion polls and the constituency line-ups making it almost impossible for Labour to end up with more seats than Fine Gael. Indeed its fear must be that it will not get enough seats to allow it to demand sensitive ministries such as the Department of Finance. And Fine Gael will do what it can not to surrender that key portfolio.

6. Labour’s worst nightmare must be that it ends up with less seats than Fianna Fáil after the election. If that happens then it will go into coalition with Fine Gael as a weak junior partner but in the longer term might as well give up any aspirations to being a leading figure in Irish politics. If Labour can’t get more seats in this election than Fianna Fáil after what the almost permanent party of power has done then it never will.

7. No matter how well Martin does in election debates — and it wasn’t just that he overcame expectations against Gilmore the other, he simply was better — Fianna Fáil is almost certain to end this election with its lowest tally of seats in its history. If it does better than that, then Martin will be treated by his own as a near genius.

8. Kenny handed TV3 its biggest marketing success of recent times by refusing to take part in Tuesday night’s debate. There would always have been interest in the first debate of the campaign but just how the station would handle the “empty chair” scenario was a major draw.

9. There is a trend in the media to say that only the media cares about debates and that the general public doesn’t. This is nonsense. Everyone I met in the following days was talking about it. I suspect people are engaged with this election more than any in recent decades and for that reason lapped up last Tuesday’s debate and will do the same with the next two RTÉ events. And if people don’t want to engage with what’s being offered to them in media coverage of the election, then they can only blame themselves if they end up saying they don’t know who to vote for.

10. There are reasons why Fianna Fáil supporters can justify voting for the party (although they won’t overcome all the reasons not to vote in favour of it): the new leader is better than the last; the bank guarantee might have been the only option left to the government on September 29, 2008 (even if it should never have got to that); the collapse of international financial markets caused a reaction that no government, even one without Fianna Fáil in it, could have coped with; much the same savage cuts on public spending and increases in tax would have been imposed by any other government. These aren’t necessarily good reasons, but they are reasons.

11. The Green Party is likely to suffer electoral damage out of proportion to its responsibility for the damage caused by the outgoing government.

12. You know things are in a bad way when Sinn Féin Gerry Adams can make claims about how this country was ruled by a corrupt ruling elite and be taken seriously. Whatever dreadful things our political classes of recent times have done they didn’t kill or endorse the killing of people for political ends and there are few things more corrupting of democracy or society than that.

13. The most important developments determining our national future are not taking place on our own island at present but in Europe. The European summit on March 24 is absolutely critical to our future because it offers the best chance of some change to the dreadful and immoral borrowing terms and conditions imposed upon us by the European Union and IMF last year. Electing a government that can negotiate convincingly on our behalf then may be crucial.

14. The worst news of the election campaign, relegated to the business pages, was that foreign deposits with Irish banks declined by 40% during 2010.

Without the European Central Bank we are buggered, because it is supplying the bulk of the money being used by the Irish banks. In many cases its money has refinanced that of departing bondholders. It is the ECB, lender of last resort, that we have to burn. How do we do that?

15. Add to that the comments of the ECB’s boss Jean-Claude Trichet last Monday when he paid a visit to the European Parliament’s economic and monetary affairs committee and indicated displeasure at the idea of changing the agreement the EU and the IMF entered with Ireland recently. Any politician who tries to portray Trichet as a civil servant who will do as he is told by Europe’s politicians is either ignorant of Trichet’s autonomy or deliberately misleading the electorate.

16. Any parties that promise not to raise income tax while in government or introduce property taxes will break that promise.

17. Independents in some constituencies may do more damage to Fine Gael’s potential vote than Fianna Fáil’s. The votes that were lost to the latter will not go to the former if high profile independents have what might be called right-wing economic policies.

18. Given that we have only eight government ministers (including an Taoiseach) and they are doubling up on their duties, how the hell are they managing to canvass and run their departments?

Candidates who argue in favour of wealth taxes seem to have massively over-estimated the real level of remaining wealth in this country.

20. Expect the unexpected over the next seven days. No election campaign ever goes to plan.

The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday 4.30pm to 7pm.