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51% support: Understanding Martin’s surge in popularity

I’ll be honest, I don’t get it:

Micheál Martin is the most popular leader in the country, one month before he finishes his tenure as taoiseach.

The Fianna Fail leader’s satisfaction rating increased by three percentage points to 51 per cent in the latest Sunday Times/Behaviour & Attitudes Poll which puts him ahead of Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald, who has consistently held the top spot this year. She remains on 49 per cent.

To be clear, it’s not that I object to Mr. Martin being the most popular politician in the country, or anything like that. It’s simply that, once again, the voters just don’t seem to make any sense.

Ask them in any poll whether they’re happy with how things are going in general, and you’ll get a negative response. Ask them about housing, and they’ll tell you it’s a crisis. Ask them about inflation, and they’ll tell you the cost of living is hitting them very hard. Ask them about specific policies, like whether Ireland should take more Ukrainian refugees than it already has, and you’ll get a “no”. Ask them about Carbon taxes, they’ll say they’re opposed. And yet, while most polls show that a majority of people are fundamentally not happy with the state of the country, they’ll also tell you they’re satisfied with the man running the country.

What gives?

I have two theories. Tell me if you agree.

The first theory is what I call the “sure the Brits have it worse” theory of Irish politics. That is to say, we do not judge our politicians on their own merits: If half the country was aflame, we would consider this a crisis only in the context of whether Britain was burning too. If 75% of our neighbouring island was on fire, but only 50% of ours, then there’s a substantial number of Irish voters and a clear majority of Irish journalists who would profess gratitude that Ireland was so well-governed by comparison. “Thank God we don’t have the Tories”.

As evidence for that theory, I’d offer you the 2008 crash, when Mr. Martin was last involved in running the country. Ireland crashed, but the UK did not. Indeed, that country gave us a hefty loan on favourable terms as part of our bailout. How much of Fianna Fáil’s subsequent electoral obliteration was a result of the hardship those years inflicted on people, and how much of it was a result of a sense of national humiliation, where suddenly Ireland was being compared to second-rate countries like Greece, and had the IMF running the country? My theory is that the latter was responsible for more anger than the actual hardship itself.

There are cultural reasons for that, of course: For years, nay centuries, we didn’t have much except our pride. We tend to value it, deep in the recesses of our cultural memory, more than we value prosperity. So long as we can hold our heads high on the international stage, we’re happy enough being paupers at home.

Mr. Martin’s whole premiership, really, has been about meeting international standards. How did we do versus other countries on lockdowns and deaths? We had this bizarre sort of competition going on where if one thousand Irish died, that was fine so long as slightly more British or French or Americans died. We could hold our heads high. And then there’s Ukraine, where “doing our bit” has become practically the national identity. Credit to Mr. Martin: he’s made “look over there” a winning message.

So that’s theory one.

Theory two is this: Voters are bullshitters.

Put it this way – for all that we hear about “the housing crisis” the simple fact is that for most people there is no housing crisis. 20,000 homeless people, or whatever the number is, is basically 0% of the population, rounded down. Meanwhile, most of us with homes are wealthier now due to higher home prices. Similarly, the health service might be bad, but few of us ever experience it at its worst. A lot of people in this country are doing just fine, thank you very much, but feel obligated to at least put on the poor mouth in public, lest they be thought show-offs.

(This, by the way, is why I’d predict that any housing referendum is doomed, whatever the polls say.)

In other words: Ask people about specific issues, and they’ll say they’re dissatisfied, because that’s the socially proper answer. Ask them about the Taoiseach, and their real views will come out, disguised as something else: Oh I like him, he’s a decent man. If they were really angry about all the things they claim to be angry about, Mr. Martin’s personal decency wouldn’t be a factor.

For all these reasons, yours truly remains much less confident than the median prognosticator that Sinn Féin will win the next election. For all the rage on the left, and anger on the right, the fact of the matter is that Joe and Julia Bloggs are happy enough in Ireland, with things as they are.

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