Sinn Féin is on target to oust Labour as the left-wing alternative in Ireland
Two strangers arrived at Stormont as the shutters went up for the summer on the empty shelves of our proconsul's talking shop.
Enda Kenny and Pat Rabbitte at last deigned to notice the north, now that the Dail is in recess for a mere three months – only until September 27.
The visitors didn't bring anything except themselves but that was the whole point of the exercise. It was all to do with the coming election in the Republic.
The Dail may be in recess but its politicians aren't. It's a nervous time.
The election looms in May or June next year. The parties will spend this summer planning and conspiring, paying out a fortune in market research and opinion polls but denying that they pay attention to any poll except the one on election day.
Kenny and Rabbitte have roped themselves together in a fateful knot like mountaineers on the north face of the Eiger. If one slips he'll drag the other with him into the void.
Travelling together, holding joint press conferences and photo opportunities, they're trying to accustom voters to the notion that they are a coalition government in waiting – 'the alternative', they claim, to the present Fianna Fail/PD coalition.
That's all the visit to the north was about – themselves and their electoral strategy. They had nothing to say about the north.
Worse, they are caught in a time warp rehashing old cliches, or maybe that's simply a description of their attitudes to the north.
Instead of repeating the stern message the Irish and British governments gave the DUP at the end of June – share power or else – Kenny and Rabbitte attacked Sinn Féin, told them to support the PSNI and end criminality. They sounded just like some class of unionist.
Mind you, that's not surprising given that ex-stickie Rabbitte – who has done more U-turns than our current proconsul – 20 years ago belonged to a party which advocated supporting the RUC and a revived majority-rule Stormont and had links with criminality.
It's simpler with Kenny. His Blueshirt mindset produces a reflex action when he thinks of Sinn Féin and the north. He hasn't a good word for either.
Nowadays this attitude of mild courtship of the DUP while scolding SF betrays how little thought either of the two has devoted to the north.
It might have been all right 15 years ago when it was customary, nay obligatory, for everyone to ignore and condemn republicans, just as it was obligatory to be photographed beside John Hume and support everything he said because he represented northern nationalists.
Not any more. Southern politicians, and especially senior Fine Gael and Labour people, have yet to come to terms with the sea change in northern nationalist politics where SF is the party that represents most nationalists.
That means when they attack SF, they attack most nationalists. Hard to get your head round if you're locked in the past with Kenny or Rabbitte, maybe, but it's the fact.
Secondly, being complete 26-county politicians, Kenny and Rabbitte see SF only as a rival for votes in the south, which they are. That's another sea change in Irish politics.
For decades a cardinal rule of John Hume was never attack a southern party, because you never know when they'll be the government and you'll need them.
Not any more. SF is part and parcel of the cut and thrust of the Republic's politics which means that now so are northern nationalists, who seethe at the nonsense some southern politicians spout about the north, especially when they're appeasing Paisley.
All the more galling when the truth is that more British MPs than TDs visit the north regularly and know more about here.
So what are the prospects of Messrs Kenny and Rabbitte? Not as good as they claim.
Yes, Fianna Fail is down to about 35% in the polls but together Fine Gael and Labour don't make the cut. They'd need the Greens to form a government.
The really weak link is Rabbitte. Many people think Fianna Fail has most to fear from SF inroads. The real danger is for Rabbitte, because Sinn Féin is on target to oust Labour as the left-wing alternative in Ireland.
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