Pearse Doherty: Sinn Féin doesn't have to worry about being in government after the election, so it doesn't have to moderate its message

APPARENTLY it wasn't the Chinese who came up with the saying 'may you live in interesting times'. Nor, contrary to popular belief, is it meant as a curse. But regardless of its origin or exact meaning, it certainly seems particularly relevant to Irish politics at the moment.

For the past few months, there has barely been time to draw breath and that's not going to change in the coming one.

It's hardly original at this stage to point out that the upcoming general election is going to be one of the most extraordinary in the history of the state but I'm not sure any of us are prepared for just how extraordinary it might actually turn out to be.

Things are changing so quickly, it's impossible to know just what the outcome is going to be once the votes are counted in a few weeks' time.

What can we say with reasonable certainty? Enda Kenny is still on course to be Taoiseach. Fine Gael seems to have seen off Labour's challenge for supremacy in the new government and now looks like the only party that can come up with the kind of seat numbers to lead a coalition.

There are even suggestions the party might do well enough to be able to consider options other than Labour for its coalition partner. Certainly some in Labour took last weekend's tick-tacking between Fine Gael and the Greens as a less than subtle statement from Kenny's party that it is still open to playing the field and that Labour shouldn't take its junior partner status for granted.

But it's virtually impossible to see Fine Gael consummating a relationship with anybody other than Labour. Certainly, Fine Gael has the potential to get to close to 70 seats but anything more looks a stretch and it's impossible to see the Greens or like-minded independents having anything like the numbers to get them over the 83 mark. Forget about the idea of an FG-FF coalition – it may happen some day but not now.

Labour may be having something of a tricky spell – getting squeezed on one side by Fine Gael and on the other by Sinn Féin and looking nervous – and it might no longer be guaranteed that they will better the 1992 Spring Tide, but Eamon Gilmore will be Tánaiste.

The battle to be the leading opposition party is going to be absolutely fascinating. Sinn Féin appears to be the party with the greatest momentum coming into the campaign and that is a huge advantage.

The message the party is selling – unilaterally burn all the bondholders and tear up the EU/IMF bailout deal – is absolutely for the birds. But it's highly seductive. Unlike Labour, Sinn Féin doesn't have to worry about being in government after the election, so it doesn't have to moderate its message.

There was much talk around the Dáil last week about Gerry Adams' undoubtedly poor performances on Morning Ireland and on LMFM's Michael Reade Show. But there is a large constituency out there who want to hear what Sinn Féin is telling them, even if it is a recipe for absolute disaster. And at 14%, the party is potentially in play in 20-plus constituencies. The fact that Sinn Féin's two candidates were on a combined 15% in a poll conducted in Carlow/Kilkenny – a constituency in which nobody had even considered them as contenders – is proof of what might be possible.

Against that, Sinn Féin never does as well in elections as in polls and each of the three big parties is going to be targeting them big time over the next four weeks. The party's organisation, or lack of, outside its heartlands could also hold it back.

The replacement of Brian Cowen as Fianna Fáil leader is also bad news for Sinn Féin. With Cowen at the helm, there was no floor on Fianna Fáil's support, leaving open the prospect of voters formally loyal to FF defecting to Sinn Féin. Micheál Martin cannot work miracles, but he can shore up the party's base. Three-quarters of the electorate will not vote for Fianna Fail in the upcoming election regardless but there is probably 25% that is in play if the party gets its act together.

Martin has had a good start to his leadership, setting the agenda with his debates proposal and rattling Fine Gael in the process. He also performed strongly in a series of media performances.

He certainly has his weaknesses – not least his 13-year tenure at cabinet and his time at Health – but there are signs for the first time in a long time that Fianna Fáil has a sense of direction and a leader that understands the importance of good communication.

Martin has also made noises about addressing the obvious shortcomings in Fianna Fáil's candidate selections, although getting selected candidates off the pitch might prove easier said than done. He needs to knock heads together in Dublin, where the party has to have the right people in place to avoid a wipe-out and it all has to happen in the next couple of days. It's a huge ask.

The fact that Sinn Féin's recent ascent has not gone under the radar can work to Fianna Fáil's advantage. Expect Fianna Fáil to play up the potential for Gerry Adams to become the leader of the opposition – something many voters would still find deeply unappealing. It's a sign of how far Fianna Fáil has fallen that it might need to resort to such tactics, but desperate times demand desperate measures.

And these are desperate times. If an election was held in the days after Brian Cowen's botched reshuffle, Fianna Fáil would certainly have been left with around a dozen seats.

On the plus side for the party, it is no longer sleepwalking towards oblivion as it appeared to be when it incredibly opted to vote confidence in Brian Cowen's leadership less than a fortnight ago. If Martin can succeed in getting a bounce for Fianna Fáil by not being Cowen; highlighting divisions between Fine Gael and Labour, and doing a job on Adams and Sinn Féin, then a target of 40 seats is possible. So still, however, is a return of 12-15 seats – a tally from which Fianna Fáil would struggle to recover. The stakes are that high for Martin. Interesting times, indeed.