Latest poll: Can Ireland’s unbreakable political stalemate last?

If you want a dramatic headline from the opinion poll published in the Sunday Independent yesterday, then you can have it: Fianna Fáil are up 3 points from 16% in the last poll to 19% in this poll. Arise and follow Micheál.

If you want the truth, then here it is: After weeks of Niall Collins, and hate speech, and massive budget surpluses and motions of no confidence in the Government, basically not a single voter has changed their mind. All of these movements are within the margin of error for the poll, meaning that effectively nothing has changed:

The poll did ask some interesting other questions: On Niall Collins, for example, 58% of people say he should have resigned, versus 31% who agree with yours truly that the whole thing was somewhat overblown. On legalising the sale of cannabis, 53% are in favour versus 28% opposed: A figure that somewhat surprised me.

On leader approval ratings, not one Irish party leader cracks 45% of the voters saying that they approve of their performance: Holly Cairns tops the charts there with 44%, though her Social Democrats can barely muster 5% of the actual votes.

The only reasonable takeaway from the poll is this: None of these people are widely liked. Not the Government, not the opposition. And because of that, the country is in a form of political stalemate, which can largely be described as a disagreement between two opposing tribes: One that wants change because things couldn’t get much worse, and another that fears change because things certainly could get much worse.

If you are in tribe one, you are likely supporting Sinn Fein or another party of the left. You subscribe to the idea that Ireland needs a radically different approach on housing and health and the division of resources. You might think the political establishment irredeemably corrupt. You believe we live in a desperately unequal society, and as such you do not mind the prospect of vastly higher taxes or state spending since the status quo is doing nothing for you. You live in a state of insecurity, worried by rising mortgage rates or the prospect of eviction. You might as well roll the dice.

If you are in tribe two, you are likely doing alright: You might be exceptionally bothered by political incompetence, or annoyed at the Government’s relentless wokery on social issues, or you might not think much about politics at all: But you have a steady job and your own house and your kids are in a decent school and there isn’t much crime where you live. If you tune out the bullshit that passes for news, your own life is pretty alright – and things certainly can get worse. You might not love the Government, but change carries its own risks, especially when you have the vague sense that Sinn Fein is a lot more radical than it lets on. Voting FF or FG got you this far, and you have no compelling reason to change. But you don’t love them.

These two tribes in Ireland are at loggerheads, even if they don’t consciously think of it that way: Change versus stability is the dividing line when it comes to deciding on the next Government. And the trouble for all of our politicians is that very few of them can reach over into the other tribe to break the deadlock: Sinn Fein simply cannot convincingly promise stability. The present Government simply cannot promise change.

The approval ratings, mentioned above, tell the story. A majority of us don’t like any of them:

By contrast, at the height of his popularity in 2005, Bertie Ahern had a 61% approval rating: People might not have been inclined to vote for Fianna Fáil, but they liked and trusted its leader. They felt good about having him run the country.

That no Irish leader can crack 50% shows the problem in a nutshell: The public have no confidence in either Government, or opposition.

This is all good news for smaller parties and independents: In this atmosphere, the prospect of all the major players bleeding votes to alternative options at the next election is high: Already, independents are likely holding on to 13% of the vote or so that was at one point a natural FF/FG vote. Cairns and the Social Democrats are well placed to appeal to those who want change, but fear Sinn Fein. There is an opportunity for the likes of Aontú to appeal to those who want sincerity and authenticity.

But as yet, nobody has managed to break out. Perhaps in an election campaign, confronted with two broadly unappealing options, somebody amongst the smaller parties will manage to make a significant breakthrough. There’s a huge opportunity to do so, because the polls tell us one thing constantly: The public is not convinced by either of the two main options to form the next Government.

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