I opened my email inbox on Thursday morning and a wave of nostalgia washed over me.
There it was, the present we had been months waiting for, the sorcerer’s magic bag of dirty tricks and the propagandists guide to the dark arts of spin.
Like all the best surprises, the packaging gave little clue of what was to come.
"Fine Gael and Labour fail the Economic Test – Minister Brian Cowen", read the title.
I could hardly contain my excitement as I tore off the packaging like a kid on Christmas morning. I wasn’t disappointed. It was chock-a-block with colourful graphs, charts, figures and sums. It was obvious that they had spent weeks and week working on the magic potions and dark spells.
And Eureka, in the best tribute outside JK Rowling to Lord Voldemort, it contains dark spin that distorts over 100, yes 100, of the Mullingar Accord promises and casts them off into the abyss.
And its no Brian ‘prudent to the point of boring us all to death’ Cowen that we have here. It’s biffo in best biffing mode.
He is unsparing in his claims. Fine Gael and Labour, he contends, would plummet the country back into the red, and would be running up exchequer deficits of E5 billion by 2012.
(And the really mysterious thing about all this is that the equally extravagant promises made by Fianna Fail will somehow magically produce a break-even situation. Why? you may ask. Well, silly, because FF have ‘costed’ them! and they also have a more powerful magic wand).
Yes, after a five year absence, the Fianna Fail ‘rebuttal unit’ has swung back into action with a vengeance.
In a gleeful example of the dark arts, its release was timed for a few hours before Fine Gael and Labour launched their joint economic manifesto, thus giving us our first example of ‘prebuttal’ for this general election.
The moment that Fianna Fail begins to get its retaliation in first, you know that an election is on.
And for the first time, we got our first real sense during this week that the election campaign is in full hue and cry, that battle has been joined.
Remember, the Dáil is still in recess until next Tuesday but it’s clear that all the parties are on amber alert. There were a couple of ready reckoners for that. The week was swollen with press conferences and announcements (on the economy and jobs), by claims and by counter-claims.
Anyway, the revival of the ‘Rebutall Unit’ brought us back to this time five years ago. The election was called on April 25 with Bertie Ahern choosing the shortest possible election campaign of three weeks, with polling day set for May 17.
Within a 12 hours of the Dail being dissolved, Fianna Fail had launched its manifesto, majoring (unsurprisingly) on the economy. For the next week, there were exhaustive (and ultimately pointless) debates about whose figures best stood up to scrutiny. And of course the ‘Rebuttal Unit’ was busily fact-checking, claim-countering, and prebutting from the off.
Not that it mattered. If the campaign had lasted three days or three months, it would not have made a difference. The Government parties dominated the agenda throughout.
Fine Gael was on a loser going in. The party compounded its difficulties with moronic and meaningless promises on taxis and to reimburse Eircom shareholders. As leader, Michael Noonan was a 100% charisma free zone until the last televised debate. But by that stage it was all over bar the shouting.
From the off, the question was not about Fianna Fail winning but about how big the winning margin would be. In the event, a rout was prevented only by the intervention of a big bespectacled child. He shinned up a lamp-post with a catapult in his back pocket and took a couple of pot-shots at Bertie Ahern.
But this time it’s different. One of the things that’s disconcerting though is that so many of the issues and the problems (quality of life; transport, health, and crime) are exactly the same. And four years ago we all made the mistake of believing promises that could not be fulfilled. We learned from our mistakes. And it’s clear from the spate of crowd-pleasing promises made already that we will have to learn from our mistakes again.
But this time it’s different. Fianna Fail sense some trouble ahead. That’s why they were panicked into bringing their manifesto launch forward to the Ard Fheis.
With good reason. For when you lick your thumb and raise it in the air, we can feel the first few gusts of more bitter winds. This campaign will be sharper, closer, more brutal, more verbose, and more gale force than five years ago. But from which direction is change coming? Is it from the west (Kenny and Rabbitte) or will the prevailing easterlies (Ahern and McDowell) continue to prevail?
This is my column from today's Irish Examiner