If it is early September it must be political 'think-in' season, when each of the parties, in turn, descend son hotels in various parts of the country to discuss strategy ahead of the commencement of the new Dáil term.
These 'think-ins' rarely produce anything memorable - with the exception of FF's famous conversion to socialism at Inchydonney in 2004, or Brian Cowen's infamous performance in Blazer's Bar at the Ardilaun in 2010 - but this time they do have an added edge to them with a General Election, at most, six months away.
A mixed summer for Government
For the Government parties it was something of a mixed summer. On the one hand there were some promising economic figures - these will form a key part of the Fine Gael-Labour re-election platform - but there were continuing instances of incompetence with several self-made calamities returning to haunt them. The Irish Water fiasco took further twists with figures showing low levels of compliance, followed by a Eurostat ruling regarding the financing of the agency that did not go the Government's way. The Fennelly Report into the departure of Martin Callinan as Gárda Commissioner raised more questions than it answered, its main effect being to raise the spectre of a panicked Government at the height of the Gárda crisis in 2014.
As ever, the summer months were a quiet period for opinion polling but those few polls that were published showed Labour losing further ground and polling at dangerously low numbers. Not alone does the party now seem certain to lose the gains it made in 2011, it is now in grave danger of polling below its long-term average and the critical point where mass seat losses cannot be avoided. For FG the position does not seem as bad but the party has failed to build on the momentum from earlier in the year that made a General Election rating of above 30 per cent seem attainable.
August also saw some speculation about the formation of the next government. Fianna Fáil's Michael McGrath caused a stir when he openly suggested FF should be ready to countenance going into coalition as a minority partner - in other words form a coalition with FG. This caused some debate within the party with three differing strands of opinion; those who favour this course of action, those who would agree to support a FG minority government but from the opposition benches (a 'reverse Tallaght strategy' ), and those opposed outright to any deal with FG.
Insider has previously said he sees the return of the FG-Labour government as the likeliest outcome of the election but it is not difficult to envisage a scenario emerge where a previously unimaginable coalition between the traditional 'Big Two' is the only arrangement that can produce a stable majority government. With this in mind it would be unwise for FF to leave itself unprepared for such an eventuality. There is also the fact that if FF keep sruling out coalition with all of the other parties, its relevance to the General Election campaign will be greatly diminished. What is the point of voting for FF if they are rendering themselves irrelevant to government formation? Dep McGrath was correct to raise the issue and the party must grapple with it.
This past week has seen further talk of a possible vote transfer agreement between the Government parties. Some TDs from both parties have even gone so far as to suggest that a joint programme for government be put before the people. Insider sees the merit in having the Government present a united front to the electorate. In a sense it has to do this - its greatest trump card is not so much the economy but rather the fact that it can present itself as a plausible government, in contrast to the opposition where there is no clear alternative government. There is no great enthusiasm for this Government but in the absence of a plausible alternative people may give them a second chance, albeit with a very heavy heart.
Insider is a little surprised, however, to see Labour embrace it with such enthusiasm because this is a high-risk strategy for the party. Transfer pacts tend to favour the larger parties as people who are minded to vote for the combination tend to give their first preferences to the leading party. We saw that manifest itself in the 1997 General Election when FF and FG performed well at the expense of the PDs and Labour.
Take the constituency of Galway West for instance, where the Government parties should take two of the five seats. A poor showing for Labour's Derek Nolan is likely to be warmly greeted in FG as his transfers will likely ensure two FG candidates - most likely deputies Brian Walsh and Seán Kyne will be returned. Dep Nolan will have a difficult task in explaining to voters why precisely they should vote for him over his FG colleagues while at the same time his association with FG runs the risk of clarifying matters in another way for those flirting with some of his rivals on the left.
Government flashpoints - Opposition challenges
Several issues have the potential to create some tension between the Government parties - among these being abortion, budgetary policy, and the funding and patronage of schools. The one that has got most attention recently is the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, something Labour favours, but which FG is lukewarm about. This does have the potential to be a heated, divisive debate. However, Insider would point out that politicians normally follow well behind the people when it comes to the big changes. Recent examples of this would be the issue of same-sex marriage and developments in Ireland's relationship with Britain The heat generated in the Dáil may not be matched on the ground.
The issue most likely to manifest itself in the immediate future is an argument over priorities for next month's Budget. FG will be keen to portray itself as a tax-cutting party while Labour will be keen to prioritise spending and restoration of public sector pay cuts. Insider feels some of the differences between the parties on these matters is a little overblown and, while he is maybe being a little cynical here, wonders if they are deliberately so in order to enable both parties to present themselves as distinct entities to the electorate, even within the constraints of a formal voting pact.
Insider has referenced above the challenge for FF to make itself relevant to the election by giving some form of indication as to what it sees as its role in government formation. The party also needs to distinguish itself from both the Government parties on the one hand, and the remaining Opposition parties on the other, in the area of economic policy. It is pointless for the party to try to ape Sinn Féin and some of the far-left parties - FF simply cannot credibly compete for that vote - but on the other hand it faces a challenge in persuading people to vote for it over the Government parties, whose policies would generally be regarded as reasonably similar to its own. FF still has credibility issues when it comes to economic management and should also focus on areas such as health and transport in a bid to distinguish itself.
For SF the question of what its stance is on government formation also arises. The party appears to be ruling out going into government on this occasion, preferring to spend another term building support with a view to entering government as a majority partner in 2020. The ideal scenario would be for it to find itself as the main opposition to a FF/FG coalition. This is a risky strategy, however, as the longer SF rule out going into power the more its potential supporters will question the point in voting for it; it may find that it is not so much a case of 'our day will come' as 'our day has passed'.
Two new parties, Renua and the Social Democrats, were launched earlier this year to much fanfare; the challenge for these parties is to formulate a set of credible policies and debunk the argument that they appear to be making it up as they go along. This will be challenging in light of the disparate nature of some of the personalities involved in the two parties. Time is not on their side either; they really need to get it done ahead of next month’s Budget, which will be the pivotal item on the political agenda between now and election day.
Finally, there is the matter of the Independents; some of those who are further to the left do not want to play any part in government formation, but a number of centrist TDs and potential TDs, including a number from the Galway area such as Noel Grealish, Seán Canney, Michael Fitzmaurice, and Dennis Naughten are very interested in so doing. For them, agreeing a strategic alliance to give them greater bargaining power in negotiations may be an attractive option and something that is being worked on.
It will be a busy autumn then, behind the scenes as much as in the public eye, for our politicians. Insider looks forward to it with a sense of dread and excitement!