Stephen Collins: Opinion poll a reality check for Fianna Fáil
Party must resist urge to woo electorate through popular spending policies
Micheál Martin: His commitment to abolish water charges smacked of opportunism. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
It can be dangerous to read too much into opinion polls far out from an election but the the latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll should serve as a reality check for all of the political parties, particularly Fianna Fáil.
Since its surprisingly good showing in February’s general election, a certain cockiness had crept back into Fianna Fáil. This was fuelled by a growing belief across the political spectrum that the party was on an inevitable course towards regaining its old status as the biggest party in the country at the next election.
The latest poll indicates that there is nothing at all certain about that. The party is going to have to earn the trust of the electorate if it is to get back into government next time around, and some of its recent pronouncements have done nothing to help that process.
Fianna Fáil’s public demands for popular spending policies in next week’s budget, like a €5 a week increase in the State pension, smacked of opportunism as did the commitment by party leader Micheál Martin to abolish water charges.
More dangerous still, the party has given the impression that it is prepared to line up with gardaí and teachers in pursuit of pay claims that will undermine the Government’s ability to keep the lid on the public service pay and pensions bill.
Fianna Fáil’s biggest mistake in the first decade of this century was to allow that pay bill to spiral so far out of control that it threatened to bankrupt the country when tax revenues collapsed in 2008.
A reversion to the failed policies of the past could quickly undermine the credibility Fianna Fáil has earned for itself through its decision to facilitate the formation of a minority Fine Gael led Government.
That decision has undoubtedly put Fianna Fáil in a difficult position as it attempts to occupy the role of the main Opposition party while remaining true to its commitment to keep the Government in office for three budgets.
There are divided views in the parliamentary party on the best way to deal with this quandary. Some TDs believe they should share responsibility, and whatever credit is going for budget goodies, while others believe they should keep their distance and be free to criticise at will.
If it really wants to demonstrate its fitness for office in the longer term, Fianna Fáil will have to resist the temptation to go a bit of the road with every interest group demanding more Government spending.
The response of the public to the poll questions about the budget demonstrate how difficult this is going to be. The overwhelming majority of people want more Government spending, particularly on health, housing and childcare.
This reflects the mood that Fianna Fáil tapped into during the election campaign but it doesn’t answer the question about where the money is to come from to fund all of the spending the public wants to see.
With Brexit bound to have a negative impact on the prospects for economic growth in the years ahead and demands for public service pay increases certain to become more shrill by the week, finding the resources to meet the many and varied demands is going to be impossible.
If that poses some difficulties for Fianna Fáil, the challenge facing Fine Gael is even greater. It will take a lot of political skill to avoid become deeply unpopular in the face of the incessant demands for increased spending. While the party managed the feat of holding on to power, its dependence on others for its survival makes the exercise of power extremely difficult.
Its precarious position means that big decisions on issues such as pension reform or the funding of third level education are highly unlikely as the political dangers involved are just too great.
There is no point blaming our politicians for this. The electorate voted for a Dáil which was incapable of producing a government with a clear majority and the opinion poll indicates that the result would be very similar if there were another election in the near future.
This is a frustrating state of affairs for many politicians who would like a return to a clear cut division between government and opposition. Ironically this frustration is most evident among Fine Gael TDs who chafe at the role they are obliged to play in the “new politics”.
In this, they reflect the views of their own voters who are more skeptical than supporters of any other party about the current political arrangements. A majority of Fine Gael voters do not believe the “new politics” is good for the country, in contrast to the supporters of all other parties and Independents who have varying majorities in favour.
Supporters of Independents and smaller parties are the most enthusiastic backers of the new arrangements. That is hardly surprising as it involves Independent TDs occupying positions in Cabinet and, going on the results of the poll, they are likely to be involved in government again if the next election comes any time soon.
Whether they like it or not, TDs of all parties and none had better reconcile themselves to the fact that the “new politics” will be around for a while. The real test of the arrangement will come if there is a serious economic shock to the system that requires tough decisions. That could well happen as a result of Brexit.
In the meantime the haggling and political horse trading will continue as Government and Opposition manoeuvre for advantage.