Electoral missiles launched but they're far from dirty tricks
THE General Election has yet to be called but the campaign for the 32nd Dáil has begun in earnest.
After more than six months of political shadow boxing the main parties have finally taken the gloves off as they bid to shape the looming campaign.
General Election 2016 is set to be one of the most hard fought in the nation's history and the likely make-up of the next government is still entirely up in the air, just a few weeks out from polling day.
In the last fortnight we have seen the first electoral missiles lobbed by Labour, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
Labour were out of the traps early with a 'leaked' election poster that played on the marriage equality referendum and urged voters not to vote for an unholy union of Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin.
Soon after, Fianna Fáil got in on the act with its first campaign poster, a large image of Enda Kenny coupled with comments harking back to Fine Gael's, ill-judged, 2011 pledge to solve the hospital trolley crisis.
Just days later it was Fine Gael's own turn with Kenny's party issuing its own poster highlighting Fianna Fáil's role in the property crash - an image of a ghost estate combined with a slogan urging voters not to allow Fianna Fáil "come back to haunt us".
The three ads led to a flurry of comment bemoaning the fact that the parties have already embraced negative campaigning.
Yes, the campaign has taken a negative turn, but why is that so unexpected? Is it even such a bad thing?
There seems to be a degree of confusion among commentators about the difference between 'negative campaigning' and 'dirty tricks'. Negative campaigning is highlighting an opponent's shortcomings rather than your own strengths. It's a perfectly valid tactic and it is as at home in a school debate as it is in national politics.
Dirty tricks, on the other hand, are a different matter.
By dirty tricks we mean deliberate smear campaigns like the seedy sex scandals that have become so unpleasantly prevalent in UK and US politics. Such tactics have never been popular in Irish politics and one hopes they never will be.
With their negative campaign tactics, the main parties - with the exception of Sinn Féin so far - are merely jockeying for position and trying to set the agenda before the race proper gets underway.
The effectiveness of the recent 'negative' ads remains to be seen but each carry their own risks for the parties that released them.
Labour's crude mock up of Micheal Martin and Gerry Adam's 'wedding' belittles the marriage referendum result (one of Labour's few PR success stories in Government) and could alienate parts of the potentially powerful 'Yes' lobby.
By its design, the Fianna Fáil poster could easily be misread and mistaken for a Fine Gael poster. Even if it isn't, the poster may be of just as much benefit to Sinn Féin and Independent candidates as to Fianna Fáil.
Meanwhile, Fine Gael's ghost estate image is a curious choice. Why the party would choose to highlight empty houses at the height of a housing crisis has puzzled many commentators.
We are certain to see more negative campaigning in the coming weeks but a full on dirty tricks campaign is extremely unlikely.
Given the myriad of potential coalitions that could make up the next government it's not in any party's interest to entirely alienate a potential cabinet partner. All that should be more than enough to keep the spin doctors' negativity in check.
As the late PJ Mara famously said: 'It's showtime'.