Enda Kenny is saving the last dance for Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein
The Taoiseach may now be denying his party could hook up with Sinn Fein, but the story has legs writes Malachi O'Doherty
Enda Kenny was clear and convincing when he said more than a year ago that he had no intention of sharing power in the Dail with Sinn Fein. He said that they were not a real party aspiring to power, but a party of protest.
That was before one of the most challenging elections Kenny has faced, after which he had to cobble together a coalition with a disparate range of independents. And what is an independent but a one person party of protest with little prospect of power, usually campaigning on a single local issue?
This coalition was so difficult to put together that some argued that Fine Gael should simply have formed a more stable coalition with the other big party, its historical rival Fianna Fail.
As it turned out, FF stayed in Opposition but undertook not to go pouncing on opportunities as they arose, to bring down the shaky new government, but to allow it to function for a while.
And shrugging your shoulder at Sinn Fein wasn't such a brave thing to do back then anyway, since Fianna Fail was committed to the same resolution and Sinn Fein was saying that it had no intention of seeking a coalition with either of them anyway.
Party politics in the Republic had come to look like the antics of teenagers at a disco, wondering who to dance with but giving definite clear-off signals to the less attractive upstarts.
Enda and Micheal Martin had arrived on their motorbikes and swept into the hall scowling at each other but each a sneaking regarder of the other's leather jacket, slicked back hair, whatever. They might be big boys agreeing not to get physical with each other, but they were not going to let on they were impressed when that hairy Gerry flaunted his moves.
Or they were like territorial warlords, pinching patches of ground from each other, bristling and scowling, but the deal was that they didn't actually give each other the full thumbs down. Yet both would squash Sinn Fein if they could and would be as happy to see the other do it.
So, what has changed?
Well, now Enda was intimating that he might take Gerry's party under his wing after all, though he rapidly retracted that hint when the media took interest.
He had said he would accept the numbers as they fell after the next election and that if Sinn Fein was fit to barter, then he'd hear their offer. This followed a statement from the Sinn Fein president-in-waiting Mary Lou McDonald that Sinn Fein had lifted its own objection to coalition.
There are a couple of problems with her gesture. It is not a full-on flirt, if we go back to the disco image. Mary Lou is saying she would be interested in a coalition only if Sinn Fein was the senior partner in it.
But we can't expect Enda Kenny, or anyone else, at this stage to set out the position they would take if they could not be top dog. Why let the voters get comfortable with the notion that you anticipate your own rout?
And Eoin O Broin, one of the Sinn Fein strategists, has already dismissed Enda's intimation of a willingness to trade.
He tweeted: "Is @EndaKennyTD having a laugh! Why would any self respecting republican want to be in coalition with a right wing partitionist party?"
No, Enda Kenny wasn't 'having a laugh'. That's the last thing he was doing. And it's the last thing the rest of his party was doing after he has so lightly exposed himself to ridicule.
But Enda may have felt he had little choice but to take a hit at this time. Better now than later. He had to get it out into the open that he was prepared to trade with Sinn Fein. The alternative was to make his declaration in the heat of an election campaign, perhaps in a high pressure media interview, in which his concession would look like something wrung out of him by a journalist.
He also had to get this out before Micheal Martin was tempted to drop any similar hint, unlikely as that may seem.
The bother now is that if he is trying to inch towards Sinn Fein, after his retraction he'll have to do it all over again.
The question then is how seriously he would have to take O Broin's scoffing.
He might note a few things. It was O Broin that fired off the rejection, not Mary Lou or Gerry Adams.
And he might note that the rejection was not a firm no; it was a question.
"Why would any self respecting republican want to be in coalition with a right wing partitionist party?"
That question hasn't bothered Sinn Fein in Stormont. The DUP is nothing if not right wing and partitionist.
So, there may be an answer in Dublin too.
Sinn Fein might go into coalition with a right wing and partitionist party in order to have a share of power, in order to impose some of its policies on at least some ministries.
But you have to wonder if Sinn Fein's standing in the Republic has changed in recent weeks and months for Fine Gael to be even thinking of sharing power with them.
Before Christmas, Gerry Adams was being reviled in the Dail for not passing on to the Gardai the name of an IRA contact he had brought the sons of a murdered prison officer to meet. Austin Stack, son of Brian Stack, who had been gunned down on a Dublin Street, had campaigned to have Adams own up to the IRA's role. Adams brought him to meet a senior IRA man who said he did know the context of the killing.
That man told Stack and his brother that their father's murder hadn't been sanctioned and that the killer had been disciplined.
So Adams knows a man who knows the killer. As a responsible TD, he should pass that name on. That's the line Enda takes. This was a huge story until the RHI scandal erupted and then Gerry Adams came back up North to champion probity in government here.
And maybe Enda feels he can breathe more easily around Sinn Fein when Adams isn't there, and maybe he suspects that with Martin McGuinness stepping down, Adams might go too and that a quick step with Mary Lou would be a lot more fun.
There is a problem with that theory. Adams is back at the kind of politics he enjoys, so he isn't going anywhere.
And even if he did, Mary Lou might find that she has missed her moment. Designated successors in the past, like Gordon Brown and George Osborne, have no great record of success and longevity.
Today, Enda Kenny looks like a twerp for reversing his stand on Sinn Fein and exposing himself to mockery on Twitter. But he has, in effect, shown a bit of leg to Sinn Fein. And some in that party will think it looks quite nice.