12.30pm Sligo Town. A couple of minutes ago Bertie Ahern rumbled through the main town of the northwest like a hurricane. For the first time, his entourage had to trot to keep up with him - with 120 people following him around, it didn't as much resemble a walkabout as a huge flock of starlings in a coordinated hurry somewhere.
Ahern has got a pep back in his step that's for sure. As expected, with words he played down this morning's findings of the Irish Times opinion poll, saying the only
It will come as a body blow for FG and Labour. Both have ran very good campaigns, stole all the thunder from FF, seized all the initiative, and also looked like clutching the main prize. Enda Kenny has amazed us. Sure, he struggled a bit with Bertie Ahern last Thursday but never to the extent of five per cent. Rabbitte has been a revelation when he's stressing the positives - on less steady ground when he's been carping or pompous. The hullabaloo about the Paris Hilton reference was much ado about nothing.
Riddle me this, as they say down the country. If FF got a Bertie Bounce from Ahern's victory on Thursday night, how did Labour lose three points when it was their leader who was the clear winner of the undercard? Bizarre.
Well, not really. Dublin is always the cockpit. And if FF is doing well in Dublin, it's inevitably going to come at the expense of Labour and SF, its biggest rivals in the city. FG and FF votes are not so interchangeable in Dublin - surprising really, given the close proximity of the parties' policies to each other's.
When pressed, Ahern gave some attribution to Westminster, some to the TV debate, some to his claim that the contract of the opposition has been 'found out' or exposed.
And for what it's worth, here the piece I filed for the Irish Examiner this morning.
The consistent narrative of this election for the first three weeks was of Fianna Fail going south, of Bertie losing his touch, of Enda and Pat having a wind behind them that seemed to intensify by an extra point on the Beaufort Scale each day.
The final weekend before polling day is always a critical weekend. No matter what the polls have been saying, whatever side they are trending to at this point will usually have the momentum in the last couple of days of the campaign.
Until 9pm last night, there was some slight evidence that Fianna Fail was staging a small recovery. The party had clawed back a point or two in support in yesterday’s Red C and Millward Brown polls. Nothing for the alternative of Fine Gael and Labour to get too worried about: their support was holding steady.
But when the details of this morning TNS mrbi poll for the Irish Times were disclosed last night, they were staggering enough to be almost GUBU.
Fianna Fail had rocketed by five points to 41% - the same level of support that almost got it an overall majority in 2002. Fine Gael had slipped by one to 27% and Labour support levels had fallen to 10% - a three point drop.
The momentum that the Rainbow had for the last three weeks seemed to be disappearing in the dying days of the campaign.
And with FF, were we seeing the first nosedive in history that actually gained altitude.
On April 27, two days before the election was called, the same newspaper put FF support at a lowly 34 per cent, with FG breathing down their necks at 31% and Labour at 10%. Then ten days ago, it showed a slight elevation for FF to 36%, but the combined strength of the alternative was still at 41% (FG at 28 and Lab at 13).
And it happens at the crucial weekend, allowing FF to seize the initiative and carry that momentum into the polls. Suddenly, the horse that looked like a beaten docket has worked its way up from the back of the field.
You don’t have to go too far to find the reason for this late surge. This poll is the first which did all its field work after the TV showdown between Bertie Ahern and Enda Kenny on Thursday night. There was an audience of almost a million people for this encounter and the perception was that Ahern won it – hands down, according to FF strategists, by a couple of whiskers, according to other.
But whatever the verdict, he did succeed in one aim – to sow a seed of doubt about the wherewithal of some of the opposition’s promises. The line was put out there (be it true or not) that the alternative’s tax proposals would favour the richest 3%. He also punched some holes into the promises for 2,000 extra guards and for 2,300 extra hospital beds. Did his arguments stand up to scrutiny? It didn’t matter. Kenny did not counterpunch fluidly enough.
But could it all boil down to this one encounter? Possibly. But the extraordinary see-sawing of results (FF going from 34 to 41 and FG going the other way) will again place into question the reliability of opinion polls. They play a major influence in the campaign – there’s no question about that – but we all rely on their accuracy almost unquestionably.
Yesterday the potential Taoisigh held morale-boosting rallies in the centre of Dublin, to give a verbal tonic to the troops for the last few days. Ahern was much more animated this weekend. Yesterday he rejected RTE’s Gerald Barry’s suggestion that the FF campaign was insipid for the first three weeks. But it was. Expect a spring and verve to Ahern today on his whizz through the north-west.
When the figures are stacked up they still show both alternatives level on 43% (the Greens are on six points; the PDs on two). Enda Kenny and Pat Rabbitte will join forces in Dublin this morning for a last-push press conference. It will still be a cliff-hanger but the pendulum has swung over slightly to the FF side.