Pat Leahy: Buckle up – a new era of post-Covid politics is coming

Handling of pandemic bodes well for Coalition in battle for middle-ground voters

Though the news that the supply of Johnson & Johnson vaccines may be severely constricted in June is a blow to the vaccination programme, it is still moving along at a fair old clip. We are within a few weeks of most of the country being jabbed. Alongside the reopening, there are signs that this will be transformative of the public mood. This can’t but have an effect on politics, and may open up a period of intense competition as the new post-Covid politics takes shape.

The politics of the pandemic have been sort of flabby and inert, with a lack of contention on the most important issue of the day. But that will not last forever; indeed, as recent exchanges on the housing issue have shown, it is already coming to an end. More broadly, as the pandemic recedes, so will the politics that accompanied it. I think we may be approaching a restart moment and my guess is that post-pandemic politics will not be the same as what went before. But neither will it be entirely unconnected to it.

Massive majorities back the Government's approach to the pandemic: 65 per cent say the Government's reaction is appropriate

The Department of Health publishes a weekly survey of public opinion, carried out by independent pollsters Amárach Research, relating to the pandemic. It presents a valuable moving picture of the public mood, and shows that there have been three broad stages in that mood since the pandemic arrived over a year ago.

First there was the "We're all in this together" phase; this incidentally saw Fine Gael's, and Leo Varadkar's, ratings rebound from election day lows in February to chart-topping success by June-July of last year. Fine Gael has retained much of that strength since.

Then there was a phase of much greater uncertainty, as the second wave began to build, first slowly, then rapidly. The public was increasingly fearful of the virus and apprehensive about the measures adopted to contain it, but even by the time of the second lockdown in October, was broadly supportive of the way the Government – now the old enemy Coalition led by Micheál Martin – was managing things.

Unsurprisingly, that approval, amid enormous public alarm, did not last past the Christmas reopening and the third wave. There has been a long period of subsequent recrimination throughout the extended lockdown.

But driven by vaccination and reopening, I think this public mood is now changing. Just look at the Amárach data. Stress, anger, fear – all have declined hugely in recent months. Worry about the pandemic has plummeted. Massive majorities back the Government’s approach to the pandemic: 65 per cent say the Government’s reaction is appropriate.

Interrogate the various policy areas, and that sentiment is echoed: on social distancing, 79 per cent say it's about right; 67 per cent say there shouldn't be more restrictions (16 per cent say there should); 54 per cent say Ireland is returning to normal at about the right pace (24 per cent say too slow, 23 per cent say too quickly).

This is big-picture, quantitative data. But I think that it’s important to realise how personally many people will feel the relief and security of vaccination. In the early, slow months of the programme, that was confined to people’s parents and elderly relatives – now it is moving into the middle cohorts of the population. By mid-summer it’s heading into the younger groups. Yes, the shortfalls will make this slower – but only by a few weeks. I am not sure that will matter much.

What does this change in the national mood do to politics? For a start, it hits up hard against the idea shared by lots of people that the Government couldn’t organise the excessive consumption of beer in a brewery, if you know what I mean. For sure there are people who will remain vocally unshakeable in that belief, but I think the personal experience of vaccination – a mammoth and complex task in anyone’s language – will challenge for many people the idea that the Government can’t do anything right.

Mind you, the Coalition shouldn’t get carried away. A poll in last week’s Sunday Times, showing significantly higher support for the Government parties among older voters (who have been vaccinated), has fuelled hopes of a “vaccine bounce”. Some people in Government talk about a delayed honeymoon for Martin.

Martin, Varadkar and Eamon Ryan will get the opportunity to reintroduce their administration to the middle-ground voters who will decide the next election

To which I would say: forget it, fellas. Any bounce is likely to be short term and belongs to the final phase of pandemic politics which is coming to an end, not to the post-pandemic politics that will follow.

But what a brisk rollout of the vaccination programme and the successful reopening of the country can do for the Government is get it a hearing from people about what comes next.

Martin, Varadkar and Eamon Ryan will get the opportunity to reintroduce their administration to the middle-ground voters who will decide the next election, who decide all elections.

What will they do on housing? On the repair and catch-up required in the health service? On the weaning of the economy off Covid subsidies and the inevitable repair of the public finances? How do they begin a green transition to a low-carbon economy that retains public acceptance? These will be the issues that decide the outcome of the next phase of politics.

Against the Government parties stands a main Opposition party that is better prepared, better motivated and better at politics – both in its long-term strategy and its day-to-day, hand-to-hand combat – than any I have seen.

There are signs, already becoming visible in Martin's Dáil duels with Mary Lou McDonald, and the determination of both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to weaponise Sinn Féin's local objections to housing developments against the party, that the Government knows what it is up against.

All this will give us an intensely combative and partisan politics such as we have not seen for a long time. Buckle up.