As the bailout comes to a close, poll figures reveal shifting patterns of public sentiment

The politics of austerity has had a dramatic impact on the fortunes of all parties

An important chapter in Ireland’s economic history closes later this week with our exit from the EU-IMF bailout programme.

The latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll, conducted on Monday and Tuesday of this week, reflects a growing optimism that the worst may be over, with Government satisfaction up six points to 26 per cent and each of the Government parties registering gains. Fine Gael has climbed to 30 per cent (up four points), while Labour has moved up to 9 per cent, a gain of three points. At last a return on their investment.

Fianna Fáil, who led the government at the commencement of the programme, is on 22 per cent, unchanged. Sinn Féin (21 per cent, down two points) and Independents/Others (18 per cent, down five points) have each drifted lower since our September poll.

While Fine Gael remain eight points below its peak of 38 per cent, recorded in July 2011, a gain of four points in this latest poll is significant and can reasonably be interpreted as a reward for steering the economy through very turbulent waters over the past 2½ years.


Meeting the conditions of the bailout programme has come at a cost. For some, the price was worth paying. Others, especially the less affluent in society, are not convinced, as reflected in today’s poll ratings for Fine Gael.

Among middle-class voters, Fine Gael registers 38 per cent support, which contrasts with a relatively poor 20 per cent among the working classes. While it has always drawn disproportionately on the professional classes for support, the class gap is wider now than it has ever been.

Sinn Féin vote
The doubts some voters hold over the appropriateness of austerity and/or how austerity has been imposed have fed the Sinn Féin vote, which has doubled since the programme began.

The poll shows Sinn Féin with 21 per cent support, down two points – yet now familiar territory for a party that struggled until recently to break into the teens.

In much the same way as Fine Gael is unchallenged for the affluent vote, Sinn Féin is by some distance the preferred party among less affluent voters. With 34 per cent support among the working classes, Sinn Féin enjoys a comfortable margin over both Fianna Fáil (21 per cent) and Fine Gael (20 per cent). If this level of support is maintained until the next general election, the party can be confident of winning a seat in the majority of working-class constituencies.

From a low of 14 per cent in April 2012, Fianna Fáil has recovered some of the ground lost since 2008, although the step back recorded in September has been confirmed in this December poll. The party still relies heavily on older rural voters. A broadening of its base, to include younger voters, is needed to sustain the recovery.

Only time will tell if Fianna Fáil will benefit in Galway East from having Colm Keaveney on the ticket. Any anticipated bounce at a national level from snagging the former chairman of the Labour Party has not materialised.

Labour’s three-point gain (up to 9 per cent in today’s poll) just prior to Ireland exiting the EU-IMF programme is the party’s reward for helping the Government reach this important milestone. A less harsh than expected budget in October may also have contributed to the increase in support after the party called for a lowering of the adjustment target.

But this bump in support for Labour needs to be seen in the context of a considerable decline in support since entering Government. Until support for Labour reaches double digits again, any gain will feel more like compensation than reward.

Fine Gael has similarly ceded territory since 2011, but proportionately and in absolute terms the damage has been less than that suffered by Labour.

Working class concern
Labour's failure to capture the imagination of working-class voters must be a concern for the party. Joan Burton's stewardship of the Department of Social Protection has in the past been rated highly by the public, but her performance is not translating into votes among recipients of the benefits her department oversees. Labour continues to trail Sinn Féin among the young, the old and the unemployed.

Independents/Others on 18 per cent have given ground (down five points) to the mainstream political parties. Exiting the bailout is a vote of confidence in establishment politics and, for a while at least, the politics of protest must take a back seat.

More importantly, the exit has spearheaded a broader lift in public sentiment. The latest Ipsos MRBI Confidence Monitor shows expectations of an improvement in the economy at their highest since 2006.

The tide of positive sentiment appears to have also benefited the leaders of the establishment parties. Satisfaction ratings for Enda Kenny (up two to 33 per cent), Eamon Gilmore (up four to 19 per cent) and Micheál Martin (up two to 29 per cent) have all improved. Not that any of these ratings were inspiring to begin with: there is a long way to go before confidence in our political leadership is restored.

Looking ahead, without the troika around, 2014 should prove to be an eventful year for politics in Ireland. Expect fireworks as Fine Gael seeks to cement their reputation as the party of responsible government, while Labour begin the austerity decontamination process. Normal service will be resumed I’m sure.