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Micheál Martin, Gerry Adams and Enda Kenny in happier times PA Wire/Press Association Images

Fine Gael wants to set the election agenda by hammering Sinn Féin... and ignoring Fianna Fáil

Analysis: Both parties are looking to sideline Fianna Fáil as the battlelines are set for the next general election,

OUTSIDE AND AWAY from the stifling heat of the hall where the MacGill Summer School took place in Glenties last summer, the former Fine Gael strategist Frank Flannery assessed where it all went wrong for his party.

He’d just delivered a devastating critique of Fine Gael’s disastrous local election performance – “one of the worst I ever saw” – and was now identifying why exactly it was so bad. The answer was simple: the government failed to set the agenda.

“The election was fought on the issues that were driven by the opposition. Whoever can set the agenda for an election has the best chance of winning it and I think on this occasion, no really strong or coherent attempt was made to set that agenda,” he said.

Flannery no longer works for Fine Gael but it’s a fair bet that the party still remembers the advice of a man who masterminded their historic 2011 general election success.

Perhaps that’s why in recent days the government, and particularly Fine Gael, has shown a clear determination to set the agenda with the election still, we are told, well over a year away. After water charges, medical cards and several other controversies, the coalition wants to get on-message and sell the economic recovery to the Irish electorate.

On Friday there was a very obvious coordinated attack from Fine Gael and Labour ministers on Sinn Féin and its policies.

Cabinet Meeting. Pictured the Minister Michael Noonan has been sent out to bat for Fine Gael and hammer Sinn Féin in recent days Sam Boal / Photocall Ireland Sam Boal / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

On Sunday, Michael Noonan accused Gerry Adams of being dishonest about his party’s tax policies, saying in a rare, but not unprecedented, statement through the Fine Gael press office that Sinn Féin “insist on increasing taxes so that they can spend more. They are a tax and spend Party whose economic policies would severely damage the economy”.

Fine Gael attacks on Sinn Féin are not unusual but the concentration of them in recent days is a new development and is indicative of a party that is now firmly in election mode.

Not that it’s the only one thinking about an election. Fianna Fáil and Sinn Fein have both made clear they expect voters will go the polls next year and talk of Election 2015 dominates Leinster House. Labour is probably hoping the coalition will go all the way to spring 2016 as it looks to recover as much lost ground as possible in the polls.

With Fine Gael and Sinn Féin both running at 22 per cent, according to the most recent Red C poll for the Sunday Business Post, the two parties are now looking to firmly frame an ‘us or them’ narrative. Both have more or less ruled out coalition with each other and both are at opposite ends of the political spectrum.

It’s on these grounds that Fine Gael is looking to set the agenda and hammer home the message to voters that they face a choice: either a Fine Gael-led government that has restored economic growth and created thousands of jobs or a Sinn Féin-led government that’s all about tax and spend.

Sinn Fein’s message is that the recovery has helped the few and battered the poorest, that a Sinn Féin-led government would be ensuring a fairer and more equitable recovery where high earners pay a lot of tax and those at the lower end of the spectrum see some of the welfare cuts in recent years restored.

Fianna Fail Ard Fheis Laura Hutton / Photocall Ireland Laura Hutton / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

What all of this does is make Fianna Fáil seem irrelevant. Fine Gael has spent the past three years dismissing Micheál Martin’s party as ‘the crowd that got us into this mess’. The polls show that FF are certainly not proving as attractive to people whose vote is up for grabs as Sinn Fein or independent candidates.

There is a certain level of arrogance in this approach from Fine Gael as Fianna Fáil spokespeople have identified in recent days. We can expect this to form part of the FF message in the lead-up to the next election: that this government, and particularly Enda Kenny, are “arrogant and deluded”.

Billy Kelleher said this morning that Enda Kenny is a “like a broken down salesman” going around the country selling tax cuts in the future budgets. Fianna Fáil believes that Kenny’s unpopularity is something it can capitalise on.

Labour will hope to be in the conversation, but knows that it faces into a difficult election where many of those elected in 2011 in danger of losing their seats. Depending on how many TDs it returns, it could yet be a key player in any coalition negotiations.

While it has been wedded to Fine Gael for the past three years you can’t rule out a fundamentally left-wing party doing a deal with another party of the left, Sinn Féin.

That’s all without mentioning the significant number of independents likely to be returned as well as the growing popularity of the Socialist Party/Anti-Austerity Alliance. Then there is Shane Ross and Lucinda Creighton perhaps each forming new parties in the run-up to the next election.

All these questions are sure to be answered in the coming months. But the most important question of all is when that election will be, and all the signs are that by this time next year the people will have had their say.

Read: Fianna Fáil doesn’t want ‘arrogant’ Government squeezing them out of the election debate

Read: ‘The Taoiseach is just playing games and trying to frighten the bunnies’

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