Andrew Lynch: There's all to play for in General Election battle, so bring it on
As Brian Cowen's disastrous Government draws to a close today, the most important General Election in a generation is finally upon us.
Up until recently, it looked as if it would also be the most predictable -- but thanks to a few last-minute developments, this campaign could be a lot more tense and exciting than anyone expected.
The opinion polls claim that the race to lead the next government is over before it has begun.
Barring a sudden collapse in support, Fine Gael is on course to comfortably win the most Dail seats and form a coalition with Labour as its junior partners.
Fianna Fail is in meltdown territory, Sinn Fein expects to make gains and the Greens are likely to be wiped off the political map.
However, the arrival of Micheal Martin as FF's baby-faced new leader has added an element of uncertainty to the mix.
After an impressive start, this son of an amateur boxer nicknamed 'The Champ' has already leapfrogged Eamon Gilmore as the public's first choice to be the next Taoiseach.
His party's ratings have yet to show any dramatic rise, but at least he has stopped the rot and given the grassroots some flicker of hope that they can mount some sort of mini-comeback.
Martin's Achilles heel is that no matter how well he performs over the next few weeks, he is leading a discredited team that looks fit for the knacker's yard.
His shiny new frontbench is a desperate attempt to change that image, unveiling several fresh faces who are not even TDs and probably won't be any time soon. Top marks for imagination -- but with Bertie Ahern's self-pitying monologues still dominating the airwaves, this is one gimmick that the public is likely to see through immediately.
In fact, FF's woes will probably be a sideshow compared to this election's main event -- the race between Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore for the keys to the Taoiseach's office.
That's why the two parties who will almost certainly form the next government are suddenly devoting most of their time to attacking each other, in stark contrast to the last election when the Mullingar Accord meant that sweetness and harmony prevailed.
FG is branding Labour as the party of high taxes, while Gilmore is frantically re-writing his economic policies and accusing Kenny of cowardice by refusing to engage in a three-way leaders' debate. With the Shinners and independent socialists snapping at his heels from the left, the Labour leader obviously feels he has to shake things up -- but highlighting the differences between his party and FG is a dangerous game that could play right into Martin's hands.
Although the public is obviously crying out for change, a revolution on February 25 is by no means guaranteed.
The Democracy Now movement that could have really shaken things up has sadly collapsed, with armchair pundits such as Eamon Dunphy and Fintan O'Toole failing to emerge from the dressing room. Only 15pc of the candidates are women, raising fears that the next Dail may be just as male-dominated and boringly unrepresentative of the public as the last one.
As the horrific events in Egypt have shown over the past few days, democracy is a precious thing.
The Irish people may be angrier with our leaders than we've ever been before, but at least we finally have a chance to make our voices heard.
If there's one thing that all politicians know from knocking on doors, it's that the electorate is more volatile than ever before -- which means those opinion polls could yet be ripped up by the time this campaign is over.
Let battle commence.