Irish Times/MRBI poll: Government parties pay price for water charges

Support for Fine Gael at 19 per cent is at its lowest level in more than 10 years and Labour are down to just 6 per cent

The water charges debacle has exacted a price from both Government parties, according to the latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll.

Support for Fine Gael is at its lowest level in more than 10 years, dropping to 19 per cent, a loss of five points since October. Labour too have sustained losses, registering just 6 per cent, down three points.

Sinn Féin have not capitalised on the Government’s underperformance – dropping two points to 22 per cent – but are still the most popular party in Ireland.

Similarly, an eight-point decline in support for the Government has not delivered a windfall for Fianna Fáil who have seen their support increase by just one point to 21 per cent. Independents & others are up a massive nine points to 32 per cent, an all-time high.


Fieldwork for today’s poll took place on Monday and Tuesday of this week, during which the latest exchequer returns were published. They showed a sustained improvement in the public finances with tax receipts ahead of forecast. But this positive economic story has not shielded the Government from voter disaffection: currently satisfaction with the Government stands at just 17 per cent, a fall of six points since October.

Economic success

Lately Fine Gael have struggled to translate economic success into votes (in much the same way as the Democrats in the US and the Conservatives in Britain have not been recognised for their achievements). For Fine Gael, their purple patch was during the early troika years when the party played a leadership role in pushing through austerity against a backdrop of impending economic doom. Then the troika departed, the gloom lifted and expectations changed.

It is clear from today’s poll that expectations are not being met. Hopes that austerity was over were dashed by the introduction of water charges. Indeed, for many families, metered water charges were likely to be the most financially onerous manifestation of austerity to date, and at a time when the coffers had been emptied.

The truth is that the Government still has limited funds to inject into health, policing or education, and unwinding years of austerity will take at least as many years. Expectations need to be managed.

The profile of the Fine Gael voter reflects the party’s success on the economic front and points to a perceived lack of success in delivering social services. Currently the party attracts 33 per cent support from AB voters – the professional classes – but manages to win over only 10 per cent of DEs – the most disadvantaged social groupings in society. Interestingly, among female voters Fine Gael attract just 15 per cent of the vote. Satisfaction with Enda Kenny’s leadership has also taken a hit, falling seven points to 19 per cent, his lowest rating since becoming party leader in 2002.

Labour's fortunes have not been revived, yet, by a change of leadership. Initial gains following Joan Burton's election (up from 7 per cent to 9 per cent) have dissolved. On 6 per cent, party support is on a par with its lowest ever performance in an Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll. Being front and centre on water charges and homelessness will not have helped the Labour cause, in view of how topical each of these issues has been in recent weeks.

Burton’s leadership honeymoon is proving short-lived. Her personal satisfaction rating has dived 12 points to 25 per cent, since our October poll.

The winners in this poll are Independents & others (including the Green Party) who have reached dizzying new heights, climbing to 32 per cent, a gain of nine points since October. The trend towards Independents & others has been building in recent years, but today’s jump in support means those dissatisfied with the mainstream political parties comprise the largest bloc of voters in Ireland.

Independent vote

In this latest poll we asked voters why they would vote for an Independent candidate or a smaller party, to better understand what is driving the Independent vote. Voters were allowed to give more than one answer if they wished.

A lack of trust in the established parties is the number one reason for voting Independent & others, cited by 36 per cent of voters. A further 10 per cent want to see reform and change. Arguably many of these voters would switch if the established parties were seen to genuinely put people before politics and power.

For many Independent-minded voters, a candidate that can make a difference at a local level is what appeals most. For 27 per cent of voters, this local or community focus is the driver of choice, with 10 per cent acknowledging the role played by personal relationships. In rural communities, keeping it local is especially relevant.

It is also important for Independent candidates and smaller parties to reflect, perhaps uniquely, the perspectives or preferred policies of voters, a reason given by 19 per cent of Independent voters. Amongst AB voters, like-mindedness is particularly sought-after.

For 4 per cent of Independent voters, a candidate’s position on water charges is a key decision factor.

Government losses have not meant gains for Sinn Féin, although the party nonetheless remains at the top of the popularity table on 22 per cent despite dropping two points.

Whereas Gerry Adams’s arrest for questioning over the Jean McConville murder barely dented the Sinn Féin vote or Adams’s personal satisfaction rating, Maíria Cahill’s allegations look like they have struck a chord with voters.

While party support is only two points lower, satisfaction with Adams has plummeted nine points to 26 per cent (yet he remains the most popular party leader). Fianna Fáil, up marginally to 21 per cent, have not stepped convincingly into the gap left by Fine Gael and Labour, edging ahead by just one point despite a healthy chunk of disillusioned voters being up for grabs.

Leadership stakes

In the leadership stakes it is steady as she goes for Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin, dipping just one point to 25 per cent to sit, in statistical terms, alongside Burton and Adams: fairly lacklustre leadership ratings across the political spectrum.

To say we are in political crisis would be an exaggeration, but the poll marks a low point for party politics.

Remarkably, no one party achieves more than 22 per cent in the poll, another first in more than 30 years of polling. Under these conditions it would be next to impossible to form a stable government.