Fianna Fail has good reason to feel happy

 

This end-of-year opinion poll provides a basis for reflection on the performances of the main parties over what was a very eventful year in Irish politics. The nine Irish Times/MRBI polls which were conducted over the period also served as a reliable monitoring mechanism on an on-going basis. Leaving aside for the moment the current, and more recent, levels of support for the party, Fianna Fail has good reason to feel very happy with its impact at the year end.

The June general election resulted in a Fianna Fail-led government. Prof Mary McAleese, the party's nominee, having led throughout the campaign, won the presidential election relatively comfortably, on second-count transfers; both outcomes being correctly foreshadowed in the opinion polls.

On the morning of the general election count, in acknowledging that the primary objective of the parties was to maximise the return of seats to first-preference votes, I commented that both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael - particularly the former - had performed exceptionally well. Collectively, the two main parties obtained 79 per cent of seats with 67 per cent of first-preference votes.

In doing so, Fianna Fail achieved the highest-ever ratio of seats to votes (100:118) in the history of this 166-seat Dail. The Fine Gael return was marginally below this at 100:116.

While these performances would not have been possible in either case without very careful strategic and tactical planning, the nomination of a wide range of independent candidates, who attracted 9 per cent of first-preference votes and won just 4 per cent of seats, was also a contributing factor. A majority of the transfers of the 5 per cent differential was captured by one or other of the two main parties.

Table A sets out a schedule of party support levels based on the series of Irish Times/MRBI polls conducted throughout the past year. Up to the general election in June, Fianna Fail averaged 43 per cent over the previous five opinion polls, and the party's 39 per cent of first-preference votes in the election represents what is now almost a traditional downturn in support, relative to campaign polls. This phenomenon has now materialised over a number of elections in the 1980s and into the 1990s.

Since June, with the party in Government, Fianna Fail has averaged 50 per cent support, and this figure has been repeated in the current post-Budget survey.

With a reduction of two percentage points in both the standard and top rates of income tax; the introduction of higher income thresholds; the increases in personal allowances; the reduction by 4 per cent of corporation tax and the halving of capital gains tax, many might have expected an increased level of support since the last opinion poll in October.

Not alone did this not materialise, but a considerable majority - three in every four - consider that those on high incomes will benefit most from the Budget, and three in every five feel that their standard of living will not change.

While Mr Bertie Ahern's satisfaction rating of 74 per cent is ahead of the other four main party leaders, this remains on a par with his September post-election positioning; it is, however, higher than in any previous poll this year when he was in opposition.

Fine Gael averaged 27 per cent over the five pre-election opinion polls; it obtained 28 per cent support in the election, and has averaged 26 per cent since.

These variations are not statistically significant and support can be described as relatively stable over the year. This assessment also applies to the Green Party, Democratic Left and Sinn Fein at their respective levels.

For the Labour Party and its new leader, Mr Ruairi Quinn, today's opinion poll provides favourable vibes. With an 11 per cent pre-election average, the party's 10 per cent in the election was seen by many as disappointing, although this represented its second-highest impact in any general election in the current 166-seat Dail.

Today's level, 12 per cent, which equates with the party's post-election average, reflects some degree of stability, which gives the new leader a reasonably solid base to work on.

His personal satisfaction rating of 57 per cent is identical to Dick Spring's September figure and, significantly, also embodies an exceptionally low level of dissatisfaction among his own party supporters. Against this, one in four are adopting a wait-and-see positioning and are undecided.

In overall terms, while the Budget did not set the heather blazing, and while three in every four also feel that the incidence of crime has not been reduced since this Government was formed, its satisfaction rating of 65 per cent nevertheless represents a pinnacle for the year.