If you had a good weekend, and headed off somewhere, then it is very likely that you did not see the news over the weekend that the Sunday Business Post published a new opinion poll on the state of the parties, with probably less than six months to go until a general election.
If you are a Fine Gael supporter, then you will have a smile on your face. If you are a supporter of just about anybody else, then you really won’t:
POLL RESULTS: Fine Gael 32% (+3) Fianna Fáil 24% (-4) Independents 13% (=) Sinn Fein 11% (-1) Green Party 7% (=) Labour 4% (-2) SocDems 2% (+1) Solidarity-PBP 1% (=) Aontu 1 (+1) Renua 0 @sundaybusiness @REDCResearch
— Michael Brennan (@obraonain) October 26, 2019
In the context of recent news events, these figures do not particularly surprise.
Fine Gael has had some indisputably good news recently. The Brexit agreement will have helped, but probably not as much as the sight of The Taoiseach and the Prime Minister meeting in the UK and hammering out the agreement man to man. One of the key advantages of incumbency is that such set piece events help to elevate the Taoiseach and make it almost impossible to imagine anybody else doing that job. The fact that he has been able to build a clear and obvious rapport with Mr. Johnson is to his credit, and it also probably adds to his public appeal.
In the meantime, Fianna Fáil have managed to make themselves something of a laughing stock. Their chief Brexit spokeswoman appears on the news once or twice a week to act as a pundit, never proposing anything new, and never directly criticising Government strategy. Two of their front benchers have managed to make fools of themselves, and the national parliament, by voting illegally and repeatedly in the Dáil. Micheál Martin manages to wear a constant frown which is supposed to reflect sadness at how the country is being governed, but instead just makes him look like a man with too much on his mind already, never mind running the country.
The biggest problem for the official opposition, of course, is that it has precisely nothing to say, and nothing to offer. And believe me, that is written with genuine sadness.
But answer this: Can you name a single Fianna Fáil policy? Can you identify one single thing that would change if Micheál Martin, and not Leo Varadkar, were Taoiseach? No? Me neither.
The truth is that Fianna Fáil is in opposition, but can’t think of anything to oppose. They would not take a different course on any of the main issues facing the country. At the very best, you could say that if they were leading the government, the budget allocations for some departments might change – more money for schools and hospitals, less money for roads and infrastructure projects. But does anyone think money is the problem? And if you do think money is the problem, why would you vote for Fianna Fáil, and not for one of the many smaller parties offering higher taxes and more spending?
When you stand for nothing, very few people will stand with you. And that’s at the core of Fianna Fáil’s problem right now. Our health service is bad – but how would FF fix it? Nobody knows.
The high support for independents, at 13%, is real evidence of this problem for the opposition party. Most of those votes, let’s face it, are really Fianna Fáil votes. They are votes against the Government, and against radical change, but much more attracted to having a strong local voice because there is no strong national voice on offer. If you dislike the Government but aren’t attracted by the opposition, you vote independent. The opposition, of course, should have a much easier time attracting those voters than the Government, and the fact that they cannot is testament to the failure of the current FF leadership.
As for the rest? Well, it’s appalling all around, isn’t it?
The country is in relatively decent economic shape, but the state of the public services is a disaster, with more than a million people on waiting lists. The Government has botched infrastructure project after infrastructure project, wasting, literally, thousands of millions of euros. Homelessness is at record highs.
Even those people in the middle who should be doing fine find themselves with squeezed incomes and very little to show for hard work and long hours. The Government is pursuing policies like the carbon tax that are literally designed to make people poorer.
The official opposition is a dud.
And yet not one of the smaller parties, on the left or the right, can break out. Let’s face it, in this environment, Sinn Fein should be thriving. Anti British sentiment is running high, Brexit seems to be risking the stability of Northern Ireland, the Government is weak on all the areas where Sinn Fein should be strong – and yet it is going backwards.
The truth, one suspects, is that this again is a matter of leadership. Mary-Lou McDonald’s record since taking over from Gerry Adams has been to repel voters who were previously comfortably snuggled into SF’s bosom. Her style is harsh and uncompromising, and she struggles to project the warmth and likeability that Adams managed, despite having spent many fewer years on the leadership council of a terrorist group that murdered thousands of people. It’s a problem that party will eventually have to face up to.
Of the smaller parties, the story again is one of complete failure. The Greens have failed to turn the Thunberg moment into anything of significance. The Social Democrats remain an internet phenomenon. Aontu is a promising option, but has struggled to connect on issues outside of the life issue, and needs to find some other signature policies quickly. Renua are leaderless, and in immediate danger of extinction.
All of this is very unsettling because bad opposition produces bad Government. At present, Fine Gael seem on course to increase their seats and return to Government despite presiding over a country where dissatisfaction and unhappiness are running very high, and where there is a crisis of some sort wherever you look.
Ireland doesn’t need more political parties. But it desperately needs the ones that it does have to have some courage, and to challenge this Government the way it deserves to be challenged.
At present, that is not happening. And the state of Irish politics is very bad indeed.