Irish Times poll offers Fine Gael germs of hope for next general election

‘The refrain of the Taoiseach and his Ministers about their success on the economy appears to have penetrated the public consciousness but it hasn’t stopped the slide in their fortunes’

‘It is very much to their credit that Enda Kenny and his Fine Gael and Labour colleagues in Government have broadly done what was required to bring the country back from the brink of disaster’.  Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

‘It is very much to their credit that Enda Kenny and his Fine Gael and Labour colleagues in Government have broadly done what was required to bring the country back from the brink of disaster’. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

 

Shortly after he took over as Taoiseach in a blaze of glory nearly four years ago, Enda Kenny remarked to colleagues that he would probably be the most unpopular politician in the country within a year.

It didn’t happen as quickly as he anticipated, but the Taoiseach’s forecast about the toll running the country in a time of economic crisis would take on him and his party has come to pass, according to the findings of the latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll.

When the euro zone crisis first struck, the current president of the European Commission and former prime minister of Luxembourg Jean-Claude Juncker summed up the dilemma facing serious political leaders.

“We all know what to do, but we don’t know how to get re-elected once we have done it,” was his pithy observation.

It is very much to their credit that Kenny and his Fine Gael and Labour colleagues in Government have broadly done what was required to bring the country back from the brink of disaster.

They have made political mistakes along the way, particularly over the past year, but their policies are now beginning to bear fruit, with economic growth taking off and unemployment coming down significantly month after month.

On the face of it there is something paradoxical about the Coalition parties being brought to their lowest ebb at a time when the evidence of the success of their policies is beginning to manifest itself.

That paradox is perfectly illustrated in the Irish Times poll, which asked voters which of the political parties they thought would be best at handling 10 major issues.

Fine Gael was viewed as the party that was best at job-creation, handling the Irish economy, managing the country’s relationship with the EU and keeping Government spending under control.

By contrast, Sinn Féin was viewed as the party most likely to put money in people’s pockets, lower taxes, play an active role in the community and protect the vulnerable.

The Independents and “Others”, who easily outscored all the parties in terms of support, were viewed as best on just one issue; speaking openly and honestly. They also tied with Sinn Féin as the most likely to reform the way we do politics.

The findings illustrate the Coalition’s dilemma. Doing a good job on the economy is all very fine but it allows political opponents to foster the perception that a government is uncaring and out of touch with the needs of ordinary people.

The fact that far more hardship would have resulted if the Government had not done what was required to rescue the economy appears to cut little ice.

The refrain of the Taoiseach and his Ministers about their success on the economy appears to have penetrated the public consciousness but it hasn’t stopped the slide in their fortunes.

Yet the poll findings contain germs of hope for Fine Gael that in a general election some of the lost ground can be clawed back. Experience has shown the economy can become a vote-winning issue when the people are faced with the responsibility of electing a government.

Management of economy

While it looked for a long time during the campaign that Fianna Fáil was going to lose office, it ultimately won out because enough people didn’t trust the Opposition parties with the economy.

The dilemma for the Coalition parties is how to demonstrate that the economic competence for which they are being given credit underpins the social expenditure and the caring side of government where they are regarded as weak.

This is a particular problem for Labour which scores badly across almost all issues raised in the poll. The only one on which it gets a respectable score is protecting the vulnerable in society. The party is back in its traditional role in office; getting little or no credit for the achievements of the Coalition but getting the blame for the tough decisions that have been taken. The fact that the party has protected most welfare payments from the cuts advocated by the troika has passed almost unnoticed.

In fact there is little public appreciation of the fact that welfare payments amount to the single biggest item of Government expenditure.

Fianna Fáil doesn’t come out on top in any of the issues categories but it does score respectably in most. It is second to Fine Gael when it comes to growing the Irish economy, and almost level with Sinn Féin on the issue of putting money back into people’s pockets.

Next election

For the Government parties, the big problem is that it is only now, as they enter the last lap of their term in office, that they have the resources to translate economic achievement for the country into putting some money back into people’s pockets.

Political incompetence has made their task even harder. The first give-away budget of any kind in seven years was obscured by the water controversy and it is doubtful if people will even recognise the benefits when they begin to flow next year.

What Kenny and his Ministers need is six months of relative calm in which mistakes are minimised while the economic fundamentals continue to improve.

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