Sinn Féin surges as leader of anti-treaty forces

Mon, May 28, 2012, 01:00

ANALYSIS:It seems clear that the pro-treaty Irish political establishment has staked its future on a European solution to an Irish problem

THE LATEST Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll confirms the rise of Sinn Féin in advance of the European fiscal treaty vote on Thursday. The poll shows support for the party at 24 per cent, a gain of three points since our April poll.

Fine Gael are on 32 per cent, a drop of just one point. However, Labour have lost a further three points and now stand on 10 per cent, their weakest showing since the 2007 general election almost five years ago.

The Green Party, on 2 per cent, are unchanged, while Independents/others have drifted marginally, down two points to 15 per cent.

Conducted on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of last week, our latest poll reveals the full impact on party support of the referendum campaign, coverage and debate.

While the activity around the campaign may not have had much of an influence in how we will vote (the margin in favour of a Yes vote has held remarkably consistent throughout), it has marked out the playing field on which politics in Ireland is being played today, and arguably will be played for the foreseeable future.

The most striking political story to unfold over the last three Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI polls has been the success achieved by Sinn Féin among the electorate generally and specifically within key demographic segments.

From having minimal support among older (55+ years) and middle-class voters, Sinn Féin can now claim significant levels of support among these groups, 22 per cent and 16 per cent respectively.

And the cherry on top for Sinn Féin from today’s poll is Gerry Adams’s satisfaction rating, which is up eight points to 37 per cent, making him the highest rated party leader in the country.

Such a strong poll-showing dares us to imagine where the Sinn Féin vote will go from here.

If austerity or an austerity-growth strategy does not bear fruit in the next few years, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour will be fighting the next election on the wrong side of the only argument that matters and Sinn Féin could thrive.

Alternatively, this new wave of Sinn Féin voters could be reluctant followers, sharing with that party a lack of faith in austerity and not much else, leading to a drift from the party when broader policy issues are discussed in the run-up to the next general election. Politics in Ireland has never been more volatile than in the past few years and this is set to continue.

The lift in Sinn Féin’s vote appears to be only marginally crowding out support for Fine Gael, down one point since campaigning on the fiscal treaty began. It seems that Fine Gael are insulated somewhat by ideology from the rise of Sinn Féin, located as they are at either extreme of the austerity debate. Fine Gael supporters are overwhelmingly in favour of the treaty, with just 8 per cent expecting to vote No, whereas just 13 per cent of Sinn Féin voters intend to vote Yes.

With a strong Yes vote likely, the expectation may have been that Fine Gael would do more than just hold its own. The sense is that the public is more afraid of voting No than would like to vote Yes, which could explain why Fine Gael is not capitalising on its referendum success.

For Taoiseach Enda Kenny, his low-profile approach to the referendum campaign may win the day for the treaty. But his satisfaction rating has dropped to 36 per cent, a fall of six points, perhaps reflecting frustration with his reluctance to participate in referendum debates.

More than ever before Labour are caught in the middle of the austerity debate. The party has no political competitive advantage in the current environment, except for Labour Ministers being afforded the opportunity to raise their profiles. Consequently, Labour’s vote is being squeezed.

Referendum voting intentions among Labour supporters highlight how the party is being pulled in both directions. Despite being in Government and supporting a Yes vote, Labour supporters are only 61:39 in favour of the treaty, mirroring more or less the national split. Many traditional, working-class Labour voters do not want austerity, which begs the question: would Labour have advocated a No vote if they were in opposition?

This contradiction is also weighing on the satisfaction rating of Labour leader Eamon Gilmore, who registers his lowest rating to date – just 26 per cent – in this poll.

With Fine Gael sliding marginally and Labour declining considerably, combined support for the Coalition parties is just 42 per cent, a far cry from the 55 per cent recorded in the 2011 general election. Somewhat in contradiction to the decline in support for Fine Gael and Labour, satisfaction with the performance of the Government has actually improved, to 27 per cent – a gain of four points. One interpretation, that allows for this contradiction is that some voters recognise the efforts being made by the Government to generate growth and employment, yet would vote against the Government in order to send an anti-austerity message to Europe.

A three-point increase for Fianna Fáil, to 17 per cent, is a significant shift and the first real gain the party has made for some time. All of the gains were made outside Dublin. Notably, satisfaction with Micheál Martin’s performance has also risen substantially, to 31 per cent, a jump of seven points.

One of the more memorable episodes of the campaign was the disagreement between Martin and former deputy leader Éamon Ó Cuív. In the minds of voters, it seems, the Fianna Fáil leader avoided a potential banana skin.

The Green Party appear anchored on 2 per cent, with Eamon Ryan attracting a disappointing 10 per cent satisfaction rating (down three points). The Greens’ lack of a position on the treaty may have been a lost opportunity to build profile for the party and its leader.

On Thursday we will vote, in all likelihood, for the European fiscal treaty. Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil have staked their futures on a European solution to the Irish problem. With so much turmoil in Europe, it is a strategy not without considerable risk.

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