Poll reveals thriving FG but little joy for listless Labour

Opinion: Popularity of Noonan out of line with fate of previous finance ministers who introduced harsh budgets

There are different messages for the two Government parties in this week's Irish Times Ipsos MRBI poll. For Fine Gael it is almost all good but for the Labour Party a welcome rise in support is tempered by some worrying undertones.

The encouraging aspect of the poll for Fine Gael is not simply that the party has jumped four points to 30 per cent, but that party supporters are behind Government strategy on the bailout and have complete confidence in Enda Kenny as leader.

Fine Gael supporters are far more supportive of the Coalition’s economic strategy than those of Labour and a full 70 per cent of them are confident that economic conditions will improve from now on.

A surprise finding is that when voters were asked who should get credit for the bailout exit Fine Gael comes in second place, after the Irish people, but ahead of the Government. Labour as a party gets virtually no credit.


The assured performance of Minister for Finance Michael Noonan must have something to do with this identification of Fine Gael in the public mind with the bailout exit. Noonan is now in joint first place in terms of public satisfaction with Cabinet Ministers.

Given that he has inflicted three “austerity” budgets on the Irish public since taking office this is some achievement. In the past during tough times the Minister for Finance usually became the scapegoat for the government of the day.

Ernest Blythe's budgets were still a source of political taunts half a century after he took a shilling off the old age pension in 1924. Richie Ryan was lumbered with the "Richie Ruin" tag for his performance in the 1970s and Alan Dukes had to take the brunt of the public reaction to tough budgets in the 1980s.

Likeable character
By contrast the public has come to regard Noonan as a witty, avuncular figure who can put complex economic problems into a language they understand. He is trusted as the politician who knows how to steer the country out of the mess while not taking troika diktats lying down.

At the age of 70, the man who burst on to the political scene 30 years ago as Minister for Justice, has confounded the axiom that all political careers end in failure. The double act of Kenny and Noonan has given Fine Gael a level of popularity and credibility in Government that has surprised even themselves.

When they took office in March 2011 Ministers in both Government parties braced themselves for protests, unpopularity and likely rejection at the next general election. But the political climate has remained far more benign than expected, due to a mixture of political skill, good luck and mature acceptance by a majority of the electorate of the need to endure short-term pain for the long-term good of the country.

The election is still two years or more away but if the worst really is over, as indicated, the Coalition can realistically aim for a second term in office.

The biggest obstacle to that outcome is the difficulty faced by Labour in getting sufficient credit from the electorate for the achievements of the Government.

The poll indicates that Labour supporters are decidedly less enthusiastic about the Coalition’s performance than Fine Gael voters. While 77 per cent of Fine Gael voters are satisfied with Enda Kenny’s performance as Taoiseach just 26 per cent of Labour supporters share that view.

Even worse, Fine Gael voters have more confidence in Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore than his own supporters; 40 per cent of Fine Gael voters are satisfied with his performance and just 31 per cent of Labour voters are.

The same pattern emerges when it comes to policy decisions, with Labour voters more sceptical than Fine Gael supporters about the bailout exit strategy and the continuing monitoring of Irish budgets by the EU.

The result is that the party's Ministers get little credit for the performance of the economy. The role played by Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin in getting to grips with the public service pay bill has been a vital part of the Coalition's budgetary strategy but neither he nor his party are getting a political dividend for that.

Joan Burton is the most popular Labour Minister, probably based on the perception that she has defended the social welfare budget from deeper cuts. That image, though, has not translated into positive support for the party.

Labour’s key problem is that it fostered the impression before the last election that in government it could offer an alternative economic strategy to the one negotiated with the troika. That was never within the realms of practical politics.

If the economy improves, as forecast, over the next two years, and the Government gets the elbow room for income tax reductions, Labour will need to be able to claim some of the credit.

Good timing
But it will take patience and nerve to wait for a real upturn in political fortune.

The temptation for the party will be to strike out on its own on some issue to show voters that it can make a real difference in office. The problem is that the electorate is still so fixated on the economy that other issues don’t make a lot of difference.

For instance the abortion Bill would probably not have happened if Labour was not in government. While that legislation had popular support the party has received little from it. The same could well happen on an issue like gay marriage.