What Irish voters really think

Weekend Read: With the general election looming, ‘The Irish Times’ assembled a focus group. The findings make grim reading for politicians, especially those in opposition

In the run up to the general election, The Irish Times held a focus group discussion to find out what people thought of Ireland and the upcoming election.


In late January 2016, The Irish Times assembled four focus groups of eight people from different social and geographical backgrounds, to examine what Irish voters are thinking - their big issues, their hopes and their views of politics - in advance of an upcoming general election.

Listening to undecided voters discuss the political choices facing them in the upcoming general election is both illuminating and depressing, throwing into stark relief the gulf in understanding that separates the political class from the majority of ordinary people.

What is immediately evident from these focus groups, which were assembled by Ipsos MRBI on behalf of The Irish Times, is that the detail of party policy and much of what happens in the Dáil go over the heads of most people who have other things to do with their lives than follow the ins and outs of political debate.

There is certainly a clear appreciation that the economy is recovering, but there are also widely differing views about who, if anyone, should get political credit. There are also divided opinions about how the gains have been distributed.

One of the striking points to emerge is that there is a serious class divide, with those at the bottom of the social scale seeing things very differently from everybody else. That social divide permeates people’s views of how the parties have performed over the past five years and feeds into their likely voting intentions.

In electoral terms the news is reasonably good for Fine Gael, which has gained a fair degree of credit for the recovery across three-quarters of the social spectrum. The downside is that there is no great affection for the party and no guarantee that the economic performance will translate into votes come election day.

The news for Labour is generally depressing, with the party getting virtually no credit for the Coalition’s achievements, even for things like the marriage-equality referendum, which stemmed directly from the party’s participation in government.

The news for Fianna Fáil is slightly better: a number of people see it as a potential part of government in the longer term. On the other hand the prevailing view is that it is too early to put the party back into a position of power.

Sinn Féin gets mixed reviews, with strong vocal support among the least well-off voters but determined rejection not only from the better off but also from many of the struggling middle. The party’s association with the Provisional IRA and the campaign of violence is still vivid in the minds of many – even those intending to vote for it.

On the surface Independents and smaller parties probably have the most to cheer about. The view across all groups is that they are more principled than the main parties and have something to offer politics. The downside is that relatively few see a role for them in the formation of a government.

Another important feature of the focus-group discussions is that, in spite of what is said about the main political parties, some of the most vocal critics of the system seem prepared to vote for individual politicians they know, despite disliking their party.

The bottom line is that overall impressions based on image and mood appear to play a far more important role in determining how people will vote than policy positions or political debates.

Ultimately, the focus groups cannot tell us how the election will turn out, but they give some broad hints. There is clear enthusiasm for change among some voters, particularly the less well-off, and that translates into support for Sinn Féin, Independents and smaller parties.

But most people recognition that an economic recovery is under way and want to see continuity and stability, to ensure that it continues. Fine Gael appears to be the main beneficiary of this mood.

The parties facing the biggest challenge in the election are Fianna Fáil and Labour. Fianna Fáil has some work to do to convince voters that it is again fit for office. Labour has to convince people that it is relevant.

The focus groups’ generally dismissive view of all politicians reveals a disconnect between the political class and the voters. Maybe it was always thus.

Group 1: Urban working class

The focus group drawn from middle-aged people on the north side of Dublin city, in the working-class group that pollsters define as C2 and DE, is more negative about all of the established parties and social institutions than any of the other groups.

Although they recognise that the economy is improving, the negatives far outweigh the positives in their responses, not only in their attitudes to the established parties but also in their perceptions of where society is going.

They are unremittingly critical of the Government, particularly the Labour Party, the health service, the welfare system, politicians’ pay, water charges, childcare services, the proposed introduction of minimum pricing for alcohol, the cost of rental accommodation, and crime.

“Politicians are all gangsters” is a recurring theme. The Labour Party leader and Tánaiste, Joan Burton, comes in for particularly vitriolic abuse, but Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are also in the firing line.

“It was the same the last election, it was the same the previous, even going back as far as Charlie Haughey, saying tighten your belts and all this. They really are all gangsters. I mean, they line their own pockets all the time,” one man says, to general approval.

Asked what words they associate with Fine Gael, the words “shite”, “corrupt” and “draconian” are used. Fianna Fáil is “old”, “corrupt”, “Haughey”, “broken promises”. For Labour it is “Joan Burton”, “Thatcher”, “U-turns” and “making Fine Gael worse than it would otherwise be”. Sinn Féin is “people’s party”, “great speakers”, “two fingers to Europe” and “undeterred”. Independents are “down to earth”, “working class”, “connect with people”, “helpful to their communities”.

The basic view is that Sinn Féin and Independents “speak up for people and are more like us” whereas Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil talk in politician’s terms, not layman’s terms.

One woman says she couldn’t believe it when she heard about opinion polls that made Fine Gael the most popular party. Another women intervenes to say, “You see, it’s the working-class people that are suffering. If you had eight people here from D4 they’d be having a totally different conversation with you. Their life is great.”

There isn’t much regard for Enda Kenny. The Taoiseach is described as a “country bumpkin” and criticised for going too far in “paying back Germany”.

Micheál Martin, the Fianna Fáil leader, is described as too old and part of the government that destroyed the country.

But there isn’t a huge amount of regard for Gerry Adams, the Sinn Féin president. He is described as “too old and a liar” in the context of his denial of ever having been in the IRA.

But there is strong support for Mary Lou McDonald, who is a hero to the women for her uncompromising attacks on Government politicians. “That’s why I’d love Sinn Féin to come in and give the two fingers up, like,” says one of the group.

Asked about coalition options, there is general indifference about who might form a government. One comment is that if the politicians themselves won’t say who they will go into coalition with, why should voters be asked to say?

People are not asked directly who they are going to vote for, but two women who are the most vocal people in the group say that they are going to support Sinn Féin. A couple of others appear to be leaning towards Sinn Féin or Independents.

Despite all of the criticism of the main parties, however, two men say that they are leaning towards Seán Haughey, who is now a Fianna Fáil candidate for Dublin Bay North, while another man mentions Terence Flanagan, the former Fine Gael TD, who now holds one of Renua Ireland’s three Dáil seats. The former Labour TD Tommy Broughan, who is now an Independent, also attracts positive comment for his work on the ground.

Although the tone of the discussion is almost unremittingly negative, it is also good humoured, with lots of banter at the expense of those in power. A number of people say they are delighted to have the opportunity to get things off their chests.

Group 2: Young working people

A group of people aged around 30, living in the outer Dublin commuter belt in Co Meath and Co Louth, have a very different outlook on life and politics. Most are in not particularly well-paid clerical jobs and are classed by the pollsters as C1 voters.

Asked what is good about the country, they mention the growth in jobs, the public finances being brought under control, building beginning again, the reduction in the universal social charge, whistleblowers and more accountability, improving morale across the country.

On the negative side they mention unfair taxes, high rents, the new Central Bank of Ireland rules requiring a 20 per cent deposit for a house, the cost of health insurance, poor public transport, and overcrowding in the health system.

They say that the country is doing better, particularly with the increased number of jobs, but they are not inclined to give the Government too much credit for that. One woman mentions “the gay referendum” as a positive development, and there is agreement on that.

The group are asked what words they associated with each political party.

Fine Gael prompts “boring”, “gay rights”, “did some good”, “steady”, “a lot to do yet”. Some say that they will probably vote for Fine Gael as they are the “best of a bad bunch”. The party is given credit for making tough decisions and taking political risks that ensure Ireland did not suffer like Greece.

As for Labour, the response is “who?” Joan Burton’s car being rocked and her tumble from the canoe during the floods are mentioned. “They sold their souls” and “not on my radar” are other comments.

On the positive side, Burton is credited with trying to improve the health service and putting an emphasis on workers’ rights – but giving medical cards to all children up to the age of seven is described as a crazy idea. Asked who they think Labour voters are, the group agree on middle-aged teachers, the kind of people who are never happy and always moaning.

Mention of Sinn Féin prompts “Gerry Adams”, “scary”, “unpredictable”, “unqualified”, “uncompromising”, “left wing”, “a little bid mad”, “I’m afraid of them”, “unemployed”, “romantic”. Renua gets a positive response: “new”, “fresh”, “potential” and “sign of the times”. For Fianna Fáil it is “crooks”, “untrustworthy”, “populist”, “old school”, “blame politics” and “Brian Cowen on radio”. Should Fianna Fáil be forgiven for the past? The consensus is not yet.

The Anti-Austerity Alliance is described as “radical”. One person thinks it was Shane Ross who rocked Joan Burton’s car and had been arrested for it. Nobody else can think of Paul Murphy’s name. Independents are described as “ineffective”, “enough of them already”, “cannon fodder”, “lacking the power to change things”. The Greens prompt “carbon-dioxide tax” and “coalition with Fianna Fáil”.

The crash still hangs over Fianna Fáil, although the party gets credit for the corporate-tax regime, which is credited with providing good jobs. The view is that Fine Gael answers to the people a little bit more, but there is also a reluctance to put the party into government.

“You couldn’t have Gerry Adams as Tánaiste representing the country abroad” is one comment. He is described as “the guy that ran the IRA” yet is regarded as the most charismatic of the party leaders. Mary Lou McDonald does not have the same level of admiration in this group as among the urban working-class voters.

Should Fine Gael consider a coalition with Sinn Féin if there is a hung Dáil? One woman comments, with a laugh, “Mary Lou would bully the crap out of Enda.” Kenny himself draws mixed responses. “Speaking by rote” is mentioned, although he does get some credit for the Government’s performance. Minister for Finance Michael Noonan fares better, but the star of the political scene in the eyes of this group is Minister for Health Leo Varadkar.

Overall, the view is that Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil, for all their faults, are the parties that know how to run the country, and it is too soon to let Fianna Fáil back in. The group appear to agree that there is no real option but to vote for Fine Gael.

Group 3: The ‘coping class’

An older group of people from the outer suburbs of Co Meath and Co Kildare, mainly made up of professionals classified by pollsters as AB, also focus on the economy and jobs as the big positives.

That the economy has recovered so quickly and construction is improving are also mentioned, along with the marriage-equality referendum and free GP care for under-sevens.

On the negative side, housing is a big issue, with high rents and the Central Bank’s requirement for home buyers to have a 20 per cent deposit featuring largely. The health service is heavily criticised; the HSE is described as “a monster”.

As for who deserves credit for the recovery, the Government gets grudging praise. “I think they’ve steadied the ship” is one comment, although it is agreed that the right policies were forced on them by the troika.

Despite the reasonably positive view of the Government, Fine Gael takes a battering when people are asked which words they associate with the party. “Lack of vision”, “liar”, “lack of trust”, “Enda Kenny” and “conservative” feature. For Fianna Fáil it is “damaged” “sleep”, “thieves”, “talkers”. Labour is “joke”, “chicken”, “afraid” and “liars”, while Sinn Féin is “dodgy”, “Gerry”, “Slab Murphy”, “unreliable”, “no economics”, “good on the ground” and “look after their constituents”. Independents are not spared either. “Troublemakers”, “jailbirds”, “limited”, “local” and “down to earth”.

Who do the group imagine the typical Fine Gael voter is? “Office based”, “D4”, “boring”, “conservative” and “hard worker”. Fianna Fáil gets “older”, “forgiving”, “in the family”, “Galway races” and “Bertie”.

Asked who they would prefer to go for a pint with, or who would be more fun, Fianna Fáil is the predominant response. “If the crisis hadn’t happened we’d still be voting for them,” one says. “I think a lot of us benefited from them, to be honest,” another says. “The country just got greedy. Everybody got greedy, not just the politicians. The whole lot of us. Simple as that. We all got greedy because the more we had the more we wanted.” Another says: “I’d probably vote Fianna Fáil, because I see Fianna Fáil as the northsiders and Fine Gael as the southsiders.”

Labour voters are “moaners”, “wouldn’t go for a drink with them, they’d be preaching at you: ‘This is what you’re supposed to do.’ ”

The typical Sinn Féin voter draws a range of responses. “Goes to the Aran Islands”, “gougers”, “working class”, “community based” and “the ones who would be causing a row”. What if Sinn Féin were in government? “We’d be broke again,” one says. Another chips in with, “Ah, Jaysus, I’d leave the country.”

When it boils down to which party people like the most, Fine Gael emerges, despite all the criticism, marginally ahead of Fianna Fáil. “I like the idea of continuity, because they have ideas and they’re beginning to work,” one says.

“There’s a serious lack of alternatives, I think is the problem. And if you look at who is going to form the next government it’s hard to see, if Fine Gael is not there, who else is going to be there. So that’s the problem: continuity probably means Fine Gael and somebody else, but probably not Fianna Fáil.”

Group 4: The students

A group of third-level students are the most positive of all the focus groups, believing that the country is on the road back to prosperity, with job creation a highlight.

There is also a feeling that the country has moved into the modern age; there is huge pride in the result of the marriage-equality referendum, reflecting modern Ireland. “It was the first time that what was actually happening in the Dáil affected us,” one student says.

“I think that it gave a lot of, like, young people just a renewed kind of faith in the country,” another says.

Who deserves credit for initiating the referendum? They were not really sure. “I remember Enda Kenny promising it going into office before the general election,” one of the group says.

Labour’s role in pushing the issue on to the Government’s agenda gets no recognition; nor does any of the junior Coalition party’s other achievements in office.

“I feel they are just, like, tagging along. Like holding Fine Gael’s hand or something like that. They just go along with them; whatever they kind of pick is Labour’s forced option,” one student says, summing up the general mood.

A number of the group cite Labour’s going back on its election pledge not to increase student fees.

When asked to say what they associate with the various political parties, the responses are interesting.

For Fianna Fáil it’s “chancers”, “Celtic Tiger”, “money wasters”, “Haughey” and “Bertie Ahern”.

For Fine Gael it’s “stable”, “clean”, “Europe”, “fair”, “growth” and “practical”.

Labour prompts “didn’t follow through on their promises”, “coalition”, “weak left”, “don’t know anything about them” and “small”.

Sinn Féin draws a more animated, if mainly negative response. One student in particular is strongly hostile to the party; he sets the ball rolling with “terrorist”. It is followed by “extremist”, “IRA”, “bold”, “nationalist”, “republican” and “populist”.

Asked why they think Sinn Féin is popular among younger voters, the consensus is that Gerry Adams has played a big part in it. A number of them describe him as charismatic and say that the fact that he is constantly on the news and on the BBC has given him status.

As for who they will vote for in the end, there is a grudging drift towards Fine Gael. “People will realise Fine Gael weren’t too bad,” one says. A “pure Fine Gael government” is the desire of another.

In personality terms, Leo Varadkar is the clear favourite with the students, although they say that Enda Kenny comes across well and that Gerry Adams is charismatic.

Background: how the focus groups worked

Ipsos MRBI held four focus-group discussions on behalf of The Irish Times on January 20th and 21st.

The participants were undecided and open voters from four social groups: urban working-class people in the C2 and DE social categories; thirtysomething workers in the modest-income C1 category; a group from Meath and Kildare in the A and B middle and upper-middle classes; and third-level students. Each group contained eight people and was facilitated by Damian Loscher of Ipsos MRBI.

The purpose was to explore how our attitudes towards politicians and parties shape the choices we make.

Findings from focus groups are not statistically robust. Their objective is to explore motivations rather than to measure opinions like a traditional poll.

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