Stephen Collins: Fianna Fáil must keep its distance from Sinn Féin in coming campaign

Poll shows there is very little backing among party supporters for coalition with Sinn Féin

Gerry Adams: The responses point to the continued isolation of Sinn Féin from the political mainstream. Photograph: The Irish Times

Gerry Adams: The responses point to the continued isolation of Sinn Féin from the political mainstream. Photograph: The Irish Times

 

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker famously said some years ago that mainstream politicians know what to do but just don’t know how to get re-elected after they have done it.

The result of the general election in Portugal last Sunday proves that in one European Union country at least that is not necessarily true. A conservative government that imposed really tough medicine on its people looks set for a second term even if it has lost its majority.

An equally important feature of the Portuguese election was that the moderate Socialist Party, which actually began the retrenchment process before it lost power in 2011, comfortably retained its position as the main opposition party.

While the Leftist Bloc doubled its presence in parliament, and leapfrogged the Communist Party into third place, the established parties of power won more than 70 per cent of the vote between them.

There are a number of uncanny parallels with Ireland. In both countries a government that implemented a rigorous troika programme and exited the bailout in style is seeking a second term, while the main opposition party that was in power when the bailout happened is struggling to remain relevant.

In Portugal the Socialist Party failed to win the election but still polled more than 30 per cent of the vote. It is resisting efforts to entice it into a grand coalition but will probably have to come to some accommodation with the government to ensure the benefits of exiting the bailout are not squandered. Its other option is to do a deal with the hard left to abandon current policies.

Minority government

Fianna Fáil might very well be in the same position after the election having to decide whether to go into coalition or keep a minority Fine Gael-led government in office to ensure that economic benefits that flowed from the programme it agreed with the troika in 2011 are not squandered.

As election day in Ireland draws ever nearer, whether in November or February, the question is whether the electorate will follow the example of Portugal and stick with the established parties or that of Greece where the people turned away from the established parties and embraced the radical politics of Syriza.

Of course, once in power Syriza had to abandon its rhetoric and adopt the very policies it had excoriated but its accession to power marked a fundamental shift in the Greek party system.

Going by opinion polls the Irish electorate is positioned about halfway between those in Portugal and Greece. The question is whether the election campaign will focus minds on stability or fuel disillusionment with the established parties.

In the 2011 general election Fine Gael, the Labour Party and Fianna Fáil between them won 73 per cent of the vote, with the remaining 27 per cent divided between Sinn Féin and a range of smaller parties and Independents.

The most recent Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll showed how much things have changed since then, with the three established parties retaining the support of just 56 per cent of the voters and the other 44 per cent opting for a range of other parties and Independents.

In the poll, voters were asked who they would like to see their preferred party going into coalition with after the election. The results provided a fascinating insight into the attitude of the electorate.

One key fact is that Fine Gael voters are significantly more wedded to forming another coalition with Labour than Labour voters are to going back into power with Fine Gael.

A total of 58 per cent of Fine Gael voters gave Labour as their preferred Coalition partner while only 37 per cent of Labour voters reciprocated. Sixteen per cent of Labour voters gave Fianna Fáil as their preferred coalition option, while 10 per cent of Fine Gael voters opted for Fianna Fáil. Unsurprisingly, only tiny numbers of each party’s supporters listed Sinn Féin as the preferred option.

The disposition of Fianna Fáil voters towards coalition options was equally fascinating. Fine Gael was the preferred option of 25 per cent, while another 19 per cent went for the Labour option.

Probably most interesting of all just 9 per cent of Fianna Fáil voters suggested a coalition with Sinn Féin as their preferred option. It shows there is very little backing among party supporters for an option that has been suggested by a small number of Fianna Fáil TDs.

Continued isolation

In fact there is virtually no support for a coalition with Sinn Féin among supporters of the three established parties. Even among voters who support Independents or smaller parties the number who favour a coalition with Sinn Féin is considerably fewer than those who would opt for a deal with either Fianna Fáil or the current Government.

The responses point up the continued isolation of Sinn Féin from the political mainstream. While the party’s support level has increased significantly in recent years and Sinn Féin is assured of its best ever election result there is distinct hostility among supporters of the other parties to involving it in government.

There is a clear message here for Fianna Fáil that any perception that it is open to doing business with Sinn Féin could be damaging during the campaign.

There is also a message for Fine Gael and Labour that if they don’t get their act together on the timing of the election they stand to squander vital transfers that could cost both parties dearly when it comes to saving vital seats.

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