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Stephen Collins: Coalition’s self-pity is the biggest threat it faces, not Sinn Féin

The Government has a strong case to make for itself, if it has the guts to do so

The biggest threat to the Coalition is not the rise in support for Sinn Féin but the supine acceptance by many Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil TDs that the Coalition is doomed to losing power at the next election. They have been intimidated into accepting the inevitability of defeat when there is nothing inevitable about it.

It is understandable that last week's Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll which showed Sinn Féin on 35 per cent of the vote came as a blow to the morale of all three Government parties. What really shook Fine Gael in particular was that Sinn Féin is now the biggest party among the wealthiest AB voters.

It is galling for all three Coalition parties to find that the voters are not impressed with their sound management of the economy and their relatively good record in dealing with the Covid pandemic and are instead being won over by Sinn Féin’s pie-in-the-sky spending promises and demands for a Border poll.

There is surely a paradox about the better-off segment of the electorate, in particular, being swayed by a party whose policies, if implemented, threaten financial ruin. This is particularly so when the country is thriving as a result of the centrist policies pursued by both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in recent decades. Economic growth this year will be an astonishing 15 per cent or more in spite of the pandemic.

The bulk of middle Ireland is still open to being won back

It used to be an axiom of politics that a government would be unbeatable if it could tell voters, as Harold Macmillan famously did in the UK, that "you've never had it so good". In the Ireland of 2021, Government TDs don't dare utter that claim, even though it is true, for fear of being vilified by their opponents in the Dáil.

Instead of succumbing to defeatist self-pity, TDs in all three Government parties need to stand up and defend their record. They actually have a strong case but they need to have the guts to put it to the public instead of hiding away for fear of the unprecedented levels of abuse that has become the norm in politics.

Stick together

A close look at last week’s poll shows that the Coalition parties still have every chance of seeing off their aggressive opponents if they stick together and demonstrate the necessary resolve. The combined vote of the three parties is 45 per cent, a drop of five points since the last election but by no means a catastrophic decline.

The bulk of middle Ireland is still open to being won back, but it needs to hear a forceful argument from the Government to explain what it is doing about difficult issues like housing and health where, contrary to Sinn Féin propaganda, it has implemented a range of policies that are having an impact. For instance, the HSE's handling of the pandemic has been far more successful than the much-vaunted NHS in the UK.

The Coalition parties have to get out there and counter the false narrative of failure that has become so all-pervasive, but they also need to stick together to have any chance of making their voices heard. Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe was surely right to argue that the Coalition should go into the next election offering the voters another term of stable and competent governance.

This was misrepresented as suggesting that the three parties should abandon their separate identities. Of course, that would make no sense. The Government parties will rightly fight the next election as independent entities with different priorities and different manifestos, but if they give the public the impression that they are somehow ashamed of their performance in office and are not prepared to co-operate again they will all suffer a drubbing.

Transfers

The outcome of Irish elections is usually decided on transfers. If the Government parties transfer to each other they will win a number of seats that might otherwise be lost. Going into the election on good terms will be vital to the hopes of all three parties picking up a significant level of transfers.

This is unlikely to happen if Dublin TD Jim O'Callaghan replaces Micheál Martin as Fianna Fáil leader. There have even been suggestions that O'Callaghan will make a move in the coming year, ahead of the handover of the Taoiseach's office to Leo Varadkar next December. He will definitely be a contender whenever the party leadership contest takes place.

The fact that there are some in Fianna Fáil who seem to share O’Callaghan’s attitude in relation to Fianna Fáil being a junior partner of Sinn Féin, rather than continuing for another term of office as an equal partner with Fine Gael, is a reflection of a deep malaise in the party.

This foolishness is matched by the arrogance of those in Fine Gael who believe that disassociating themselves from Fianna Fáil and staging a head-to-head contest with Sinn Féin is their best route to gaining seats. Both Government parties need to engage in some serious soul-searching about how they face the future. Most important of all, they need to focus on what is good for the country.