Here’s a relatively counter-intuitive, but nevertheless true, statement: If the present opinion polls in Ireland are to be believed – and there is not much reason to doubt them – then the present Irish Government is on course to be re-elected.
Here is the most recent such poll, from the weekend, conducted by Behaviour and Attitudes for the Sunday Times:
🚨 POLL 🚨
B&A / Sunday Times
SF: 34% (=)
FF: 24% (+1)
FG: 22% (+2)
LP: 4% (-1)
GP: 3% (-2)
PBP/S 2% (+1)
SD: 1% (-1)
I/O: 8% (-1)
+/- Nov/Dec 2021
— Next Irish General Election (@NextIrishGE) January 23, 2022
That particular poll, it should be noted, has in recent years recorded support for Sinn Fein at a higher level than many other polls. It may be accurate, or it may not, but it is fair to say that it represents, for Sinn Fein, the highest public estimation of their current support.
And yet, if you break down the figures, you find that 49% of voters support one of the three parties presently in Government, and only 34% support the main opposition party. If our electoral system works as it is intended to work, then on those figures, the current Government should emerge from an election with something very close to a majority of seats, and the ability, should they wish, to continue in office either by themselves, or with the support of some independents.
But the problem for Sinn Fein is deeper even than that, if you assume, as we do here, that its objective is to lead the next Government. After all, at the last election, Sinn Fein left seats on the table. So sudden, and unexpected, was the surge in support for the party that it simply did not run enough candidates. For example, in Dublin South Central, the most left-wing constituency in Ireland, Aengus O’Snodaigh won 17,000 votes. The quota was 8,600 votes. Sinn Fein had the votes to elect two TDs, but elected only one. At the next election they will, without doubt, gain a second seat in that constituency.
But at whose expense?
This is where the problem arises: Sinn Fein’s extra votes, last time out, elected People before Profit’s Brid Smith. The other two TDs elected were Patrick Costello of the Greens, and Joan Collins, a left wing independent. There is a very good chance that the second Sinn Fein seat in that constituency will come not at the expense of the Government, but of either Collins, or Smith. That would be a net gain for Sinn Fein, but not a net loss for the Government.
Indeed, across the country, that pattern repeats itself: Time and again, where Sinn Fein might make a gain, the likely casualty is not the Government, but some other opposition party elected last time on Sinn Fein transfers. These gains will be cheered to the rafters by Sinn Fein, of course, but they do not actually put them in a place to form a Government. All they do is cannibalise potential coalition partners.
And then there is the other problem, which is this: It is currently the middle of the Government’s term. They have just come through Covid 19. They are deeply unpopular with many in the country. And yet, they remain in a very good polling position. It is not at all inconceivable that collectively, the Government parties could add 5-10% support during an election campaign and – if they choose to remain together – be re-elected.
In fact, by the standards of western, English-speaking democracies, the Irish Government is in a very strong political position, relative to the main opposition: In the UK, Boris Johnson trails Labour by 10 points, and would lose an election held today. In the US, Joe Biden has an approval rating in the thirties, and would lose an election held today. In Australia, Scott Morrison trails his Labor opponents badly. Even in New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern’s Government can muster only 41% in the most recent poll.
The Irish Government then, is a major outlier.
Why is this?
In part, of course, it is due to the unique nature of the opposition. In none of those other countries (and sorry, SF supporters, this is just fact) is the main alternative to the Government a party with a recent connection to a major terrorist organisation. In none of those countries, either, is the main opposition party so openly radical, and of the hard left. You won’t find Keir Starmer, for all his flaws, with a Palestinian flag in his social media bio.
In other words, there is much more resistance to the opposition here than there is in those other countries. We have vastly more voters willing, even with the state of the country, to vote to keep the opposition out than they have.
This is going to be a very hard nut for Sinn Fein to crack. The political achievement of going from 10-12% support, which is where they were for most of the last decade, to regularly hitting 30%, is not to be sniffed at.
But, despite all of the talk, the raw facts suggest – again, for good, or for ill – that the party still has a worse than even chance of winning the next General Election. In the context of opposition parties internationally, Sinn Fein is significantly underperforming.