Re-emergence of FF is not inevitable

Sat, Oct 20, 2012, 01:00

Fianna Fáil seems to have got its act together but it is early days yet for the party

WHEN SHE spotted Micheál Martin when speaking at her book launch on Thursday night, Mary O’Rourke congratulated the Fianna Fáil leader on the party’s rise in the polls. To general laughter she added that of course one swallow doesn’t a summer make, before finally adding in her inimitable style that it was nonetheless always nice to see even one swallow.

The exchange sums up the significance of Fianna Fáil’s four-point rise in this week’s poll in The Irish Times. It will do party morale good, but it doesn’t make its re-emergence inevitable.

The rise for Fianna Fáil mirrors an equivalent fall in Sinn Féin’s support. It gives Martin and his team some comfort that they may have begun the process of edging up support levels.

Sinn Féin was higher when Ipsos/MRBI last polled in May because of the profile it attracted from its opposition to the European fiscal treaty. Sinn Féin also had a more robust parliamentary performance at the time. This autumn, however, it has been quieter and Gerry Adams in particular appears politically subdued.

Fianna Fáil, by comparison, seems to have got its media and parliamentary act together over the summer. For the first half of this year Martin and his finance spokesman Michael McGrath were the only active or competent voices on the Fianna Fáil front bench. In recent weeks others have had the opportunity to shine, not least during the O’Reilly controversies on which Billy Kelleher has been particularly effective.

It is just over a year since Fianna Fáil got itself into contortions over whether to run a candidate in the presidential election. It is only seven months since Éamon Ó Cuív’s pre-ardfhéis shenanigans. Now at least Fianna Fáil seems calmer internally. Externally it is beginning to come across as more coherent and co-ordinated.

There is limited space for Fianna Fáil to make further gains in the polls in the short term. Its capacity to benefit from the difficulties which the Government will face over the budget is undermined by the fact that this Government, when bringing in cuts and new taxes, will be implementing much of the four-year plan agreed with the troika by Martin and his colleagues in the last government.

The reason that the rise in Fianna Fáil vote became the headline story from this week’s poll was because there was no statistically-significant change in support for the Government parties. Fine Gael and in particular Labour will be relieved they have not slipped given the controversies which have dominated news coverage since the summer.

Labour is actually measured up two points. In circumstances where speculation and stories about further austerity measures abound the stability in the vote share for Fine Gael and Labour appears at first glance to be remarkable. However, that stability in their vote is only when compared against last May’s poll. The fall in support for the Government parties, and for Labour in particular, happened before that.

Fine Gael is now five points lower than the vote it got at the last election. Labour has lost more than a third of the vote share it won then. In February 2011, Eamonn Gilmore’s party was at 19 per cent whereas in this week’s poll it is back to about 12 per cent.

Other aspects of the poll results should give the Government parties cause for concern. Just one in five voters is satisfied with the Government’s performance. The two parties are in Government at a time of unprecedented economic crisis. They were, however, elected just 18 months ago with a historically large mandate and expressing a determination to tidy up the economic mess and reform the political system and the public sector. It is remarkable that a Government which is so new and which has been so cautious is already so unpopular.

It is too early for voter fatigue with this Government to set in but there are signs of widespread voter frustration.

That frustration arises from the economic circumstances but it is directed at the Government because Fine Gael and Labour both overstated their capacity to bring economic relief.

The stagnant international economic environment and low domestic consumer confidence have meant that the hoped-for small measure of economic growth has not happened. It may be attracting generous plaudits from abroad but the political difficulty for the Government is that there has been no appreciable easing of the economic pressures at home.

Overextended households or otherwise depressed householders can see no improvement in their position. Instead they fear they will face additional bills after the budget.

Voter frustration also stems from the fact that the Government has been slow to tackle the big-ticket budgetary items. Child benefit is an obvious case in point. This poll shows that more than two-thirds of the electorate favour targeting child benefit at those who need it most. This is a step which the Government should have taken in the last budget. The Government will add to the frustration factor if it flunks big decisions like this again in December’s budget.

The other significant issue on which the two Government parties over-promised before the election was their capacity to renegotiate the deal with the troika or at least to negotiate down the bank portion of our national debt. Angela Merkel’s “out, out, out” style press conference after yesterday’s summit comes as a further blow to the Government.

Whatever comfort this week’s poll figures brought Enda Kenny has been greatly disturbed by the German chancellor’s comments in Brussels.

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