Hell might be about to freeze over for Fianna Fáil


The latest polls show that Fianna Fáil can no longer depend on their core vote

LAST JANUARY, while giving a talk to a college politics class, I offered the view that the trend in available opinion polling suggested that if a general election was held anytime soon, Fianna Fáil’s first preference vote could fall to the low 20s.

Their lecturer intervened to argue that surely irrespective of what polls suggested, Fianna Fáil had a solid core vote and about a quarter of the electorate would vote Fianna Fáil unless hell froze over.

I retorted that, at least in Irish political terms, hell might be about to freeze over.

On Thursday one of the students sent me a text saying, “it appears the devil needs ski boots”.

What this week’s TNS/mrbi poll confirms is that it is wrong to assume there is a floor to the potential decline in Fianna Fáil’s support level, save, of course, that it can’t go below zero. This is only an opinion poll, and it comes at a time of unprecedented economic and political volatility. It is, however, the fifth such poll in which Fianna Fáil’s support has declined. Fifteen months ago the adjusted figure for Fianna Fáil was 42 per cent; 10 months ago it was 27 per cent. It is now 17 per cent and there is every reason to expect it will be even lower when the next TNS/mrbi poll is published, presumably at budget time.

This poll also comes just 12 weeks after disastrous results for Fianna Fáil in June’s local, European and byelections. The scale of the cumulative losses Fianna Fáil suffered in those elections is still not fully appreciated by many within the party. Some have suggested things weren’t that bad for the party because a 24.5 per cent vote in the locals was actually higher than expectations.

It is worth restating the headline outcomes from those three contests. In the local elections, Fianna Fáil was decisively beaten by Fine Gael into second place. Fine Gael won almost 128,000 more votes and has 122 more seats than Fianna Fáil on city and county councils. Fianna Fáil’s loss of 89 seats in these local elections follows the loss of 82 seats in the same elections five years ago. Not only did Fianna Fáil suffer a disaster in the 2009 local elections, it was a disaster upon a disaster.

Nationally, Fine Gael got over 96,000 votes more than Fianna Fáil in the European elections and Fianna Fáil lost its only European parliament seat in the capital.

Fianna Fáil’s performance in the two Dublin byelections was even more ominous; their vote fell by 24 percentage points in Dublin South and more than 32 percentage points in Dublin Central.

Seeking to graph the results of opinion polls or local elections on to the map of Dáil constituencies is an exercise which must be approached with caution, but if Fianna Fáil’s performance in a general election was anything close to that in June’s local elections, it would lose about half of its Dáil seats. If it fell as low as this week’s opinion poll suggests, the party would lose many, many more.

The local elections also revealed that the collapse in first preference share coincides with an even greater collapse in the party’s capacity to attract transfers.

No single factor can explain such a sudden and steep fall in support. The blame attaching to the party for the economic crisis is probably the primary explanation, the pain of adjustments necessitated to correct the public finances is another, and failures of communications and political leadership have also contributed.

Instinctively, one might be tempted to attribute the 3 per cent drop in this poll to controversies about the McCarthy report and Nama, but the fact that both Fine Gael and Labour’s percentages have also fallen suggests the need for other explanations. The local, European elections and byelections themselves were the most significant political events since the last TNS/mrbi poll in May.

Voters like to support a winner and can be quick to abandon a loser. Fianna Fáil’s grip on its core support has been loosened further by the losses suffered in June.

Ironically, this worst ever poll result for the party comes when there is more coherence to Government policy and communication than in a very long time. The Government successfully negotiated guarantees around the Lisbon Treaty sufficient to justify putting the question to the people again.

This week’s Lisbon poll is a reality check for the Government and other Yes campaigners. They must, however, have factored into their campaign strategies the likelihood that the margin would tighten as the campaign proper began, not least because, as pointed out here in July, there was a considerable “push” element to the way the Lisbon Treaty question was framed in previous TNS/mrbi polls.

The Government now also has a policy and plan for addressing the banking crisis. As data from the questions in the poll about banking, which are published in today’s paper illustrates, an intervention of the scale involved in the Nama exercise was never going to be popular. It does seem increasingly likely, however, that the Government will have the required Dáil majority to get the Nama legislation passed, albeit with some amendments.

A plan and timescale for addressing the crisis in the public finances has also been laid out. The detail of how this will impact on this year’s budget is the subject of intense argument at Cabinet and in public.

The debate about choices on the taxation side will also intensify when the Commission on Taxation report is published next Monday. There are, however, unlikely to be any significant changes in the tax code.

Getting Lisbon, Nama and the budget passed will do much to settle our economic situation, but will do little to improve the Government’s political fortunes.