Largest party in healthy territory despite fall back to earth
New Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald appealing to wider base than Gerry Adams
The sense that Leo Varadkar’s popularity could be the catalyst for a paradigm shift in Ireland’s post-crash politics is waning. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
The most obvious trend in opinion polls since the Government was formed almost two years ago was the growth in Fine Gael support.
After a crushingly disappointing election result (just 26 per cent of the vote) following which Enda Kenny performed the Houdini act of putting together a government and leading it for a year, Fine Gael support climbed slowly but steadily in poll after poll.
Leo Varadkar’s arrival as Taoiseach in the middle of last year turbo-charged the process. Notching the highest personal ratings since the days of Bertie Ahern while his Government did the same thing, Varadkar saw his party climb to 36 per cent before Christmas, before falling back a little in the new year.
Today’s poll suggests that period for Fine Gael is now over. Government satisfaction is high, though static. Varadkar falls back a bit. And Fine Gael falls back to earth, dropping three points (after two in January) to 31 per cent.
It’s important to say this is still healthy territory for the main Government party. But the sense that Varadkar’s popularity could be the catalyst for a paradigm shift in Ireland’s post-crash politics, remaking the ground rules in the way that Ahern did - and the prospect was entertained by Fine Gael dreamers and hard-headed pragmatists alike - is significantly diminished by today’s findings.
It wasn’t only Fine Gaelers who entertained these thoughts.
Although the view of the leadership of Fianna Fáil about Varadkar is not a flattering one, other frontbenchers and influential party figures worry about a Varadkar effect; they cite the evidence on the doorsteps.
More tellingly, they rely on their own sense of political smell, that most valuable of all political indicators. They, in particular, will be greatly cheered by today’s numbers.
It is wise not to over-interpret a single poll. Varadkar remains a potential election-winner. He is by far the most popular political leader in the country. He has the power and profile of his office; and that most precious of political attributes, even if it is an inevitably wasting asset: people believe he is a bit different.
But ultimately Varadkar will be judged, like all government leaders, on his record. On progress in health and housing; on his handling of Brexit, on success for his side in the abortion referendum. These are the priorities for Varadkar’s administration.
Results will matter; failure will too. He has seen short-term popularity; it proved to be fleeting. If he wishes for the long term variety, he - and his administration - will have to earn it.
Sinn Féin will regard Mary Lou McDonald’s polling debut with some satisfaction. Her party increases by three points to 22 per cent, while her personal rating - at 39 per cent - is significantly ahead of the neighbourhood Gerry Adams used to inhabit. His last satisfaction rating was 27 per cent. January’s poll suggested that voters were more open to listening to McDonald than they were to Adams. Today’s poll confirms that in concrete terms. Now she must decide what it is she wants to say to them.
Fianna Fáil support ticks up a point to 26 per cent, a statistically insignificant move, while Micheál Martin’s rating falls back by two points: similarly irrelevant. But some relief: Fianna Fáil’s static position comes after Martin’s bombshell declaration that he would support repeal and abortion on request at 12 weeks. At the time, some of his parliamentary party predicted revolt. Whatever about the party members, its voters appear unconcerned.
There are no significant moves amongst the smaller parties and independents, though it should always be remembered that national polls are not the best tool for measuring their support.
The small parties and independents, by their nature, depend on strong local candidates to secure seats.
Put it this way. The Labour Party now - in polling terms if not organisationally and politically - is a small party, hovering around 5 per cent since the last election. If Labour got five per cent in every constituency, it would win no seats. But it has seven TDs and at least that many again will contend to win back seats in other constituencies.
The same applies to all the other small parties, groupings and independents. But that having been said, there’s no doubt that the Independents and others - the political alternative to the old parties - have declined substantially in popularity since 2016. There will be fewer - and probably a lot fewer - independents in the next Dáil.