Bad news for the Coalition
What a difference two years make! From a position where voters would hardly give Fianna Fáil the time of day, the party has secured the accolade of first in class in the latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll. Not only has the party surged ahead of Fine Gael, but party leader Micheál Martin has drawn level with Taoiseach Enda Kenny in terms of public popularity and moved ahead of Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams. It represents an achievement of Lazarus-like proportions.
Fine Gael and Labour can draw some reassurance from the fact that the poll was conducted before this week’s deal on the promissory notes, which can be expected to give the Coalition parties a boost. But the latest figures, while dramatic, reflect a longer-term trend of increasing dissatisfaction with the Government. Since last October, its satisfaction rating has fallen by three points to 18 per cent while dissatisfaction has risen to 77 per cent. It lost significant traction in Munster where Mr Martin is spearheading his party’s comeback.
The December budget, with its cuts in spending and welfare, along with commitments to forthcoming property and water taxes, is likely to have had the greatest impact on public opinion. But slow-moving negotiations between the Government and public sector unions on the need to cut €1 billion from its pay bill represent an imminent threat to the declining health of both the Labour Party and Fine Gael. A further fall in living standards for this large group of voters is unlikely to go unpunished.
Mr Martin can be expected to take particular satisfaction from the news that clear daylight has now been put between Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin. Having trailed that party for most of last year, a gap of eight points has now opened up. During the past four months, Fianna Fáil gained five points to 26 per cent while Sinn Féin dropped two points to 18 per cent. Support for Fine Gael fell by six points to 25 per cent while Labour Party support, at 10 per cent, fell two points to where it had been nine months earlier. Support for Independents increased by six points to 20 per cent.
In spite of this week’s promissory note deal, these findings are likely to increase pressure on Government backbenchers, particularly in Labour. Loose talk of an early general election if Ireland fails to secure some comfort from the ECB in relation to its enormous debt could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Tánaiste and Labour leader Eamon Gilmore, whose satisfaction rating fell by six points, appears vulnerable. While Mr Martin, Mr Kenny and Mr Adams are closely bunched in terms of public popularity, Mr Gilmore has fallen out of the leading pack. Labour’s dramatic loss of support at both ends of the social spectrum could bring an early leadership challenge.