Irish politics will be reshaped if the continuing surge in support for Sinn Féin, as revealed in the latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll, is repeated in the general election this weekend. Sinn Féin is now the most popular party in the country and unless there is a dramatic change in the final days of the campaign the party is on course to gain seats. Fianna Fáil has failed to make the impact that was widely expected at the start of the campaign while Fine Gael is on course for a clear defeat.
A mood for change has gripped the electorate and Sinn Féin is the main beneficiary. The Green Party is also set for gains but not to the same degree as Sinn Féin, which has maintained momentum throughout and is managing to attract increased support across all regions and most age groups. Younger people, in particular, are attracted by the party’s house-building plans and unconcerned by the legacy of the Troubles. Some older voters seem to have been won over by the pledge to reverse the increase in the pension age.
It appears that the confidence-and-supply arrangement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil has had the unanticipated outcome of binding the two parties even more closely in the minds of unaligned voters while casting Sinn Féin in the role of primary alternative. Fianna Fáil refused Enda Kenny’s offer of a grand coalition in 2016 on the basis that it would yield precisely that result by allowing Sinn Féin to lead the Opposition.
Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have spent the campaign bickering about their minor differences rather than challenging Sinn Féin on policy, in particular the party’s extensive tax and spending plans. As the electorate wrestles with final voting choices and, in some cases, considers how to give expression to a desire for change, the two parties which have dominated Irish politics for so long will hope it is not too late to reverse the tide. Sinn Féin’s potential gains are limited too by the number of candidates it is running.
Voters will also need to consider the composition of the next government and the likelihood of the policies that appeal to them being delivered. Asked in the poll about a variety of coalition options, a Fianna Fáil-Labour-Green administration was marginally the most popular but there was no clear preference among the five options on offer. A majority of Fianna Fáil supporters share Micheál Martin’s objections to doing a coalition deal with Sinn Féin but a significant minority also oppose coalition with Fine Gael. Among Sinn Féin voters a coalition with Fianna Fáil is the favoured option.
Whatever happens on Saturday the formation of the next government is going to be a complicated and time-consuming process. The parties will need to show more realism when it comes to negotiating a programme for government than they have done with some of their election promises.