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Poll: SF edging closer to “overall majority” support levels

What do you need to win an overall majority in the Dáil at an Irish General Election? It was last accomplished in 1977, when Jack Lynch took 84 seats for Fianna Fáil with just over half the votes cast. But that was in a much less fragmented political system – only three parties, FF, FG, and Labour, took seats at that election. A better comparison to the modern state of Irish politics might be 2002 – then, Bertie Ahern, at the height of his political powers, came very close to a majority, winning 81 seats and falling just two short of the hurdle…. On 41% of the votes. With a fair transfer wind behind a party, an overall majority is certainly possible with support in the low 40s.

And don’t look now, but Sinn Fein are headed in that direction, if the latest poll from Behaviour and Attitudes for the Sunday Times is to be believed:

Now, there are a few caveats, and they are big ones: First, this particular poll has perennially been the most Sinn Fein friendly that is regularly published. There is reason to be sceptical about the party’s figure in it. Second, there is good reason to believe that Sinn Fein might not be as transfer friendly as Bertie’s 2002 machine was. Third, there is as much chance of SF support falling in an election campaign – as smaller left wing parties get more coverage, and a chance to nibble away at their left flank – as there is of SF support rising appreciably. If you were a betting man or woman, something in the region of 70 seats looks much more likely than a majority. But a majority can no longer be definitely ruled out. Especially since, after less than two years of this Government, this is the best Barry Cowen can come up with: “Yeah, we’re terrible, but they’ll be worse”:

Inspiring.

That the country is in this position, of course, is testament to the complete failure of the present Government at both a policy level, and a political level. They have now been in office for approaching two years, and, in that time, could not be credibly said to have solved, or begun to solve, even one of the major problems which dominated the last election campaign. The housing crisis may actually have worsened. The health service is no better. Covid 19 is still with us. Even on those issues where the Government’s defenders might claim progress – climate change for example – that progress is horrendously unpopular.

Sinn Fein, all the while, have gained support by osmosis, and by a process of elimination, because they are the only option for voters who want to remove the current Government from power. Their inescapable argument at the next election will be very difficult to counter: If you want FF and FG out of power, then there is nobody else you can vote for who will definitively accomplish that task.

Of course, this is also the last hope of the present Government: Their only credible argument, at the next election, will be “it’s us or the Shinners”. For most of Irish history, that argument would have been enough to secure victory. It is testament to their utter failure and fecklessness that this can no longer be said.

The problem for the Government is, and remains, that it has no intellectual or ideological riposte to the opposition. It is, for the most part, implementing opposition policies: On housing, it has embraced rent controls, and massive state investment. Those are also Sinn Fein’s policies, except, of course, that Sinn Fein claims it would spend more and do the policies faster. On health, it spends lots of money, and banks on a policy called “Slaintecare” – and SF says it would spend more money. On Climate, it has adopted an unpopular policy and actually allowed SF to outflank it on the right by opposing the carbon tax, while claiming to deliver Climate Justice.

The Government cannot credibly say that SF’s policies are bad since it is, by and large, implementing policy in Sinn Fein’s direction. The only argument that it has left, then, is that Sinn Fein are morally unacceptable. And that, unfortunately, is a hard argument to make coming from a Government whose leading figures are being investigated for corruption, in the case of Mr. Varadkar, or who openly lied to the voters about what they would do after the last election, as in the case of Mr. Martin. “They’re worse than us” is not an especially good argument, as Mrs. Clinton discovered in 2016.

As such, it is hard to see the trajectory changing. More and more voters are coming to the conclusion that change is required. Sinn Fein have the great fortune of being the only credibly available change. There reaches a point where “get them out” becomes a much stronger imperative than “scrutinise the policies of the opposition”. Ireland is on track to reach that point, very soon.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael spent a century, of course, playing this same trick on each other. Rather than needing to differentiate themselves, they simply alternated in Government and opposition, believing roughly the same things as each other, and pledging to deliver competence instead of radical change. Now that they are in bed together, Sinn Fein has simply taken their old playbook. Whatever the party might say on social media, its message to the masses at the next election will simply be that it will deliver on the people’s priorities in a competent way, and that the voters have no reason to fear them.

FF and FG have made this mess for themselves, and they have no way to get out of it, aside a radical shift in policy that would be simply unthinkable for the people running the Government. Their defeat at the next election is now basically an inevitability. The only remaining question is the size of the SF mandate.

The country is in a horrendous place.

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