A shift in how we view politicians


HAVING PLUMBED the depths of unpopularity, Taoiseach Brian Cowen and the Fianna Fáil party are making slow but steady progress in assuaging a disillusioned electorate, according to the latest IrishTimes/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll. The findings are still extremely bleak. But, from a Government point of view, the trend is in the right direction and the results will reassure worried insiders that tough decisions and political recovery can go together.

Passage of the Lisbon referendum, Nama legislation and bank recapitalisation, and an extremely tough Budget were key features that contributed to a gradual improvement in public sentiment towards Fianna Fáil. Despite that, three out of four voters are still dissatisfied with the way the country is being run. And, if an election was held tomorrow, Fine Gael and the Labour Party could be expected to form a government with a comfortable majority.

On adjusted figures, Fine Gael with 32 per cent support maintains a solid, 10-point lead over Fianna Fáil. Labour, the largest party in Dublin, attracts 24 per cent support nationally. Sinn Féin is on 8 per cent and the Green Party is on three. The Government’s satisfaction rating has risen five points since last September to 19 per cent, while approval for Mr Cowen has grown by three points to 26 per cent.

There has been a major shift in the way politicians are viewed since the beginning of our economic difficulties, in 2007. Back then, the leaders of all political parties attracted satisfaction ratings in excess of 40 per cent. Today, Eamon Gilmore is the only one to qualify. Mr Cowen attracts a paltry satisfaction rating of 26 per cent. And while the Fine Gael party has performed exceptionally well, fewer than one in three voters are satisfied with the leadership of Enda Kenny. Green Party leader John Gormley is the least popular, with a satisfaction rating of 24 percent. Despite these showings, changes of leadership are unlikely to occur in advance of a general election.

Six months ago, as the Government staggered from crisis to crisis, an early election appeared inevitable. Having cleared three major hurdles, however, the Coalition parties and their supporters are beginning to grow in confidence. This has been due, in no small measure, to the performance of Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan. Whether that momentum can be sustained will depend, to a large extent, on the effectiveness of Nama, the cost of recapitalising the banks and the introduction of robust regulatory reforms.

Industrial unrest within the public sector is likely to cause problems. A piecemeal approach to unemployment and the absence of a coherent recovery plan has left the Government vulnerable to attack from Fine Gael and Labour. But Opposition parties will have to tread carefully if they are to present themselves as a credible alternative government. Some of the weather-related criticisms directed at Government Ministers in recent months have been pathetic. Less knee-jerk opportunism and more thoughtfulness would be welcome.