‘Irish Times’ poll: Radicalisation of Irish politics seems to have been arrested

Analysis: Varadkar hits 49% approval rating, but voters still see his party the same way

Leo Varadkar: Budget 2018 gives the Taoiseach a megaphone to use on voters. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill A hefty 45 per cent say Leo Varadkar has had a positive impact, against just 14 per cent who view his impact negatively. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Leo Varadkar: Budget 2018 gives the Taoiseach a megaphone to use on voters. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill A hefty 45 per cent say Leo Varadkar has had a positive impact, against just 14 per cent who view his impact negatively. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Statistically, there’s nothing in it. Fine Gael is up a point, to 31 per cent, Fianna Fáil up two, to 29. The main Government party leads the main Opposition party by a couple of points. But it’s all margin-of-error stuff. The picture of the Irish political landscape is essentially unchanged: the big two out in front, Sinn Féin following in the middle distance, Labour struggling for survival and a diminished small-party and nonparty vote scattered among its various components.

But fixating on who is up and who is down by a point or two in any given month is not the best way to approach opinion polls. Better to look at the longer-term and medium-term trends for telling information; if something is significant it will last for more than one poll.

Today’s numbers offer further evidence of the strengthening of the centrist consensus in Irish politics. Since the last general election both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have seen their support grow, slowly but steadily. Both parties are now five points ahead of their result in the last general election.

That time, in February 2016, the two old Civil War parties struggled to hit 50 per cent of the vote – a far cry from the days when they commanded 80 per cent between them. Their opponents hailed it as further evidence of their irreversible decline and the end of the old duopoly. And that’s how it looked.

But that decline has proved not so irreversible. Now their combined support is at 60 per cent. Throw in the Labour Party, the Greens and a lot of the Independents and you have well over two-thirds of voters aligned to broadly centrist politics. More than half of people (51 per cent) think the country is generally going in the right direction. All this suggests that, whatever their exact make-up, governments in the foreseeable future are unlikely to be very different in policy terms from what we have now.

For all the sound and fury, the radicalisation of Irish politics seems to have been arrested and even reversed. That’s pretty significant.

Get on with governing

That’s not to say that people are bouncingly content with their politics. Only a bit over a third of people (36 per cent) say they are satisfied with the Government (same as last month). The same proportion says the present government arrangements have worked well, while more (44 per cent) say they haven’t.

But they want it to work; they want politicians to get on with governing. Just 31 per cent want an election now; twice as many (62 per cent) say there should not be an election for a year or two. A strong majority of Fianna Fáil voters (66 per cent) share this view.

It’s as you were for Sinn Féin and the Labour Party, both down a statistically insignificant one point from the last poll, in May, but that is better news for Sinn Féin than it is for Labour, which trundles along at 4 or 5 per cent. Labour’s real political battle is in the handful of constituencies where it stands a chance of regaining seats. Sinn Féin’s signals of a shift in willingness to enter coalition haven’t registered much with voters.

The smaller parties all hover at or below the margin of error. It is hard to draw any conclusions from such small numbers, but it is clear that, collectively, support for Independents and small parties is substantially down since the last election. That’s the flip side of the return to Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

There is one new dynamic in today’s poll, of course. It’s Varadkar.

The new Taoiseach registers his first leadership approval rating at a vertiginous 49 per cent – by far the highest of the party leaders and the highest any leader has registered since the early days of Enda Kenny’s period as taoiseach, in 2011.

A hefty 45 per cent say Leo Varadkar has had a positive impact, against just 14 per cent who view his impact negatively.

His novelty is clearly a factor. But it would be careless to dismiss Varadkar’s popularity as inevitably fleeting. Most people have noticed him, and more than a few of them like him. It is important to note that he has not persuaded them to change their views of his party or their voting intentions. But they seem minded to give him a hearing.

What he chooses to say to them, of course, is another matter. So is how they receive it. But with the forthcoming budget he has a megaphone. It is an important juncture in Varadkar’s premiership.

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