A few months ago, I would have thought it was absolutely beyond the bounds of the imaginable that Fianna Fáil might survive the shock of the economic collapse, bluster its way through a harsh recovery programme, hang on in office until 2012 and recover sufficiently in order to defeat the main Opposition parties in the next General Election.
Last night's segment on Newsweek (BBC2) in which Obama pollster Cornell Belcher analysed the current state of the main political parties in the UK had me making many comparisons with the current state of play here.
Unlike in the last U.S. Presidential elections, when Obama voters believed (rightly or wrongly) that they were opting for a clear alternative to Bush's policies, voters in the UK emerged as profoundly unenthusiastic about any of the parties. Many of those who may desert Labour for the Conservatives will do so out of a sense of anger and disillusionment. They are not pro-Conservatives and/or David cameron. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems are failing to convince many people that they represent a credible alternative.
Similarly, many people here feel disgusted with Fianna Fáil, and probably long for a clear alternative. But neither Fine Gael nor Labour is perceived as an attractive option. In the case of Fine Gael, this is more understandable, since there is little of an ideological nature to distinguish it from Fianna Fáil. Given the now almost total irrelevance of Civil War politics, opting to support Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael may be largely a matter of preference for one set of personalities over another, or choosing the least bad option between the two.
Referring to the UK, Cornell Belcher concluded that
(a) a clear majority of the electorate is hungry for change, and
(b) any Party willing and able to respond to that hunger by presenting a radical alternative to 'politics-as-usual' would win massive support.
I believe the same is true here, and the Labour Party has everything to win or lose. Gilmore even emerges as the post popular Party leader. I certainly hear lots of people lauding Joan Burton's Dáil performances, especially when she attacks the Government full-on.
But Labour appears to shy away from really going after the big prize, i.e. a Labour (or Labour-led) Government after the next General Election. For example, by joining Fine Gael and other parties in refusing to demand the resignation of John O'Donoghue, Labour immediately confirms a suspicion that, when all is said and done, 'they are all the same'. Labour appears to make radical noises in fits and starts. And that is not good enough.
In the absence of a really inspiring alternative, I am beginning to think that Fianna Fáil strategists are probably keeping their own troops in order by pointing out (a) the weakness of support for the Opposition, (b) the fickleness and short memory of the electorate, and (c) the fact that, while 2009 may be their darkest hour, there are already glimmers of light on the horizon, indicating that they could well manage to turn things around by 2012.
I certainly don't believe that Fianna Fáil are remotely ready to concede the next General Election. And for that, Fine Gael and, especially, Labour, are largely to blame.