Stephen Collins: While FG gets a bounce, FF’s downward trend alarms TDs

‘Some indication of how opinion polls translate into seats on the ground will emerge from the outcome of the Carlow Kilkenny byelection on May 22nd’

‘If Aylward fails to be elected, Micheál Martin’s leadership of Fianna Fáil will come under serious scrutiny.’ Photograph: Gareth Chaney/ Collins

‘If Aylward fails to be elected, Micheál Martin’s leadership of Fianna Fáil will come under serious scrutiny.’ Photograph: Gareth Chaney/ Collins

 

The general election is now less than a year away and while there will inevitably be further twists and turns in the popularity stakes between now and then, some of the trends evidenced in the latest Irish Times poll appear to be irreversible.

An obvious one is the increase in Fine Gael support. Mind you the party did so badly in the last Irish Times poll in December, hitting a 12-year low, that some kind of bounce was almost inevitable.

The increase of five points and the jump of nine points in Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s rating were significant. Still, the party will need to do considerably better than the 24 per cent achieved in the poll if it is to have any chance of retaining most of its seats.

The Fine Gael recovery is obviously tied to the economic recovery and to the fact that the Coalition has got a grip on the political agenda since the beginning of the year. The economic recovery has manifested itself not just in the growth figures, which are abstract concepts for many voters, but in tangible benefits such as the fall in unemployment and the increase in take home pay arising from tax changes in the last budget.

Assuming the recovery continues apace for the rest of the year and the Government continues to avoid own goals, Fine Gael can be reasonably confident of gaining further support, particularly when the election campaign actually begins.

The poll also indicates that Fine Gael support is more solid than that of the other parties. For instance Fine Gael voters were much less inclined than voters of other parties to succumb to the attractions the new political party, Renua Ireland.

Fine Gael supporters were also far less inclined than others to say the country needed a new political party.

The indications are that Renua could eat into the Fianna Fáil vote despite the fact that it was founded by three TDs who were elected for Fine Gael in 2011.

If that does happen it will be a repeat performance in reverse of what took place after the formation of the Progressive Democrats. In its first election in 1987 the PDs’ sitting TDs were all ex-Fianna Fáil but they managed to attract the bulk of their votes from a declining Fine Gael.

While Fine Gael is getting a bounce in the poll the Labour recovery is more tentative. The trend is at least going in the right direction but the party will need to get 10 per cent or more to have a chance of holding even half the number of seats it won in 2011.

When it comes to Sinn Féin, the remarkable thing is that party support increased despite a month of negative publicity arising from the Paudie McGahon abuse case.

If it can hold the 24 per cent it got in the poll, or anything like it, in a general election, the party will more than double its number of Dáil seats. While polls have tended to overestimate party support in recent years the trend for Sinn Féin is clearly upwards.

For Fianna Fáil the opposite is the case. The downward trend in the polls since the party’s strong performance in the local elections last summer has alarmed its TDs and party leader Micheál Martin is now in a vulnerable position.

Support for Independents

Nobody is sure precisely when the election will be but the most likely dates are November of this year or February of next year. One Fine Gael figure pointed out during the week that the party’s best ever performances were in November, 1982, and in February, 2011.

The danger of leaving it until February of next year is that unforeseen events could change the political dynamic in unexpected ways. For instance, in recent days the civil war in Yemen has sparked a surge in oil prices that could reverse some of the optimism about world economic growth.

Some indication of how opinion polls translate into seats on the ground will emerge from the outcome of the Carlow Kilkenny byelection on May 22nd. It will be particularly interesting to see whether Sinn Féin, smaller parties and Independents come close to the kind of support they consistently achieve in the polls.

On the basis of national polls the front runners should be the Fine Gael candidate, David Fitzgerald and Sinn Féin candidate Kathleen Funchion but speculation in the constituency installed Fianna Fáil candidate Bobby Aylward as the early favourite.

Favourite’s tag

In May 2014 Fianna Fáil won 34.2 per cent of the vote, compared to 29 per cent for Fine Gael, 10.7 per cent for Sinn Féin and 14 per cent for others.

Sinn Féin is confident of a significant increase in the byelection, and with potential transfers from smaller hard left parties and a number of Independents, it could put up a real challenge for the seat.

If Aylward fails to be elected, Martin’s leadership of Fianna Fáil will come under serious scrutiny.

While it would be very close to an election to attempt to change the leader that is what happened within Fine Gael less than a year before the last election, so anything is possible.

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