Yesterday, President Higgins (the first person not called Mary to win a presidential election since 1973) dissolved the 31st Dáil, on the advice of the taoiseach, Enda Kenny.
With Ireland one of the victims of Eurausterity, it will be interesting to see if the electorate react in a similar fashion to those in Greece, Spain and Portugal, all of which handed power (or the balance thereof) to radical Left-wing parties.
The outgoing government is composed of Mr Kenny's Fine Gael party, propped up by the Labour party, led by the tánaiste and minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton. (FG and Labour were the largest and second largest parties in the Dáil respectively). The main Opposition party is Fianna Fáil, the once hegemonic ruler of Ireland for most of the 20th and 21st centuries, but which was Jim Murphyed in the 2011 general election, losing 50 of its 51 seats. Sinn Féin is the secondary Opposition party, with a decent caucus of radical Socialists being noisy, but ineffective, mainly because - with bewildering inevitability - they split.
There was some debate within the government as to the date of the election: FG reportedly wished it to be on Thursday, February 25th in order not to disenfranchise as many as 40.000 rugby fans (with a tendency to vote FG) heading to London for the Six Nations rugby match on the Saturday. Labour argued in favour of the Friday in order to accommodate students, and those who live in Dublin through the week but return to their home county for the weekends. The taoiseach seems to have accepted the advice of his tánaiste regarding the timing.
Fine Gael - The United Ireland Party is expected to be the largest party returned to the 32nd Dáil. It is led by the taoiseach, Enda Kenny, a 64-year-old who has been Teachta Dála for Mayo since 1975. In addition to being taoiseach, he is also Father of the Dáil, the longest-serving TD. FG is riding high in the polls, and is receiving credit for being the architect of Ireland's economic recovery.
Labour, which won an historic high number of TDs in 2011, is looking at a dreadful result. Some polls have them returning a single figure of deputies to the Dáil. They are being punished by Left-wing voters for being perceived to have propped up a right-wing regime in power (this may seem eerily familiar to British readers who support the Liberal Democrats). Irish Portillo moments may be provided by several high-profile ministers including tánaiste Joan Burton, a 67-year-old Dublin West TD who fell in a river last month. In the mid-90s FG/Labour/Democratic Left government, Ms Burton was a minister, but lost her seat in the 1997 election to a Socialist. Many commentators predict that she may be about to repeat the unhappy experience.
Fianna Fáil, The Republican Party went into the last election with Brian Cowen, somehow, as taoiseach, but not seeking re-election to the Dáil, and Cork TD and former foreign minister Micheál Martin leading the party. Mr Martin, with a wealth of experience in government, is very young for an Irish party leader at only 55 years old, and has been a TD since 1989. He was steadily, if unspectacularly, rebuilt FF, despite an internally controversial decision not to have an FF candidate contest the 2011 Presidential election. He has been adamant that he will neither go into coalition with FG nor Sinn Féin, nor will he participate in a government in which FF is not the largest party. With 79 TDs required for a majority, and FF only putting up 70 candidates, this would seem to leave him requiring the support of Labour (which historically goes into coalition with FG), and various independents.
Of which, more: the Independents are likely to have a massive influence in the new Dáil. Ireland has developed a taste for local Independent TDs, which secure local investment in return for supporting the government. There is an Independent Alliance, and various actual independents of varying degrees of colour. One, Mick Wallace, TD for Wexford, is notable for his appearance in the Dáil with long grey hair, a beard, denims, and pink t-shirts. Others, such as Michael Lowry (Tipperary) have been expelled from FG for corruption (a judge last month referred to him as "even worse than [former FF taoiseach Charles] Haughey]). It is my opinion that any government, given the collapse of Labour (for FG), and FF's painting itself into a corner, will be hugely important.
Sinn Féin is the elephant in the room. Led by 67-year-old Louth TD Gerry Adams, to whom British readers will require little introduction, SF has positioned itself as the main progressive and anti-austerity party in the State. Reconciled to partition, yet still working towards reunification, the party has renounced the armed struggle and has attracted a new generation of young supporters, excited by its stance against water charges and privatisation. It looks likely that Mr Adams will stand down at some point in the next Dáil as SF president and hand over to the inspirational Dublin TD Mary-Lou McDonald. 2011 was the first election SF elected a number of TDs who could be grouped in something apart from "others", and whilst it's a long-shot that Mr Adams will emerge as taoiseach (even if SF lead the new government, it's likely he'd be unacceptable to other parties), it has a very strong chance of being the official opposition, putting modern republicanism and anti-austerity politics at the forefront of Irish politics. SF's support comes mainly from Armagh, Derry, Dublin, Fermanagh, Louth and Tyrone, of which only Dublin and Louth send TDs to the Dáil.
The Anti Austerity Alliance - People Before Profit has Richard Boyd Barrett, a 49-year-old TD for Dun Laoghaire, as its public face. Its stance against Irish Water and the IMF bailout has catapulted it to popularity in the larger urban centres, particularly Dublin.
The Social Democrats formed from three independent TDs in the previous Dáil. In a hung Dáil, they may be expected, having returned their three, to participate in the new government. They have a joint leadership, but Catherine Murphy (62, Kildare, former Workers Party, Democratic Left and Labour; TD since 2005) would be the most likely person to take a ministerial job.
Smaller parties such as Renua (basically Ian Duncan Smith on steroids) will also be standing, and not getting any TDs. Their leader, Lucinda Creighton, may be familiar to Scottish readers as the Europe Minister who complained to the BBC after it lied about her comments regarding Scottish EU membership during the Referendum.
There are three televised debates scheduled - RTÉ will broadcast a debate between an AAAPBB and SD candidate to be determined, Micheál Martin, Enda Kenny, Joan Burton, Lucinda Creighton and Gerry Adams on February 15th; and the main debate between Martin, Kenny, Burton and Adams on the 23rd. These debates will be in the English language. TG4 will broadcast a debate between the main candidates (Martin, Kenny, Burton and Adams) at a date to be decided.
This election is unpredictable - and is one to watch across Europe. If you jabbed me in the ribs and asked for a prediction, I'd first of all say "ouch", and then I'd lean towards Enda Kenny as taoiseach leading a minority government. But there is much to come between now and polling day.