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Why the latest poll is even worse for Government than it looks

People who follow politics tend to be politically partisan. That is to say, they “support” a particular party in much the same way as this writer supports Manchester United, for all the happiness it brings me. That means that the figure which interests them the most in an opinion poll is how their own party is doing. Three points up, or three points down, can genuinely mean the difference between being on cloud nine, or in the depths of despair, if you are a political hack. For the general public, it’s much the same: Who is up, and who is down, is the most interesting thing.

But “most interesting” is not always the same as “most important”. In yesterdays’ Irish Times poll, for example, all the attention went on the fact that it was a black poll for the Government (again) and a good one for Sinn Fein (again). But the underlying figures are much worse again, and probably more important. Consider this, from Pat Leahy’s customarily dispassionate and brutal report:

The poll also suggests there is a strong desire for political change. Asked about their “attitude to change in the way the country is run”, 38 per cent said that favoured “radical change”, while 47 per cent said they were in favour of “moderate change”. Just 11 per cent said they were “wary of change”.

That Sinn Fein are on 36% in a poll where 38% say they favour “radical change” is hardly a surprise. Sinn Fein represent many things to different people, but there is little doubt that amongst the bigger parties, they are the ones who represent radical change. The deeply disaffected number well over a third of the electorate now, and Sinn Fein is hoovering up their votes.

But what of the 47%? The people who favour something defined as “moderate change”?

By definition, many of them must be supporters of the Government. Which suggests that the Government is in a weaker political position than it even appears to be, from the poll, because many of its own supporters are dissatisfied with the state of the state.

This is emblematic of a position I hear from people very regularly now: They’re awful, but who else is there to vote for?

The more partisan or passionate of our readers may say something here like “Aontú!” or “The Irish Freedom Party” or, if they’re on the left “The Social Democrats”. But all of these things have the same problem, and that’s a collective action one: Nobody seriously thinks of those parties, for all their apparent virtues or vices, as an alternative Government. A minor coalition partner, sure. But coalition with who?

The Government’s biggest remaining strength is that it remains the only viable alternative in the public mind to Sinn Fein and Sinn Fein’s “radical change”. But it is not loved, for that. It is resented. There are plenty of people in this country who do not wish to vote for them but will feel that they have no choice.

And that is the biggest danger for the Government in an election. Because it is, and will be, much easier for Sinn Fein to present themselves as the party of moderate change than it will be for the Government to do the same. In fact, if Sinn Fein were smart (and they are) they might consider presenting themselves as “radical on health and housing, moderate on everything else”. And certainly, the other thing that will benefit them is the fact that the smaller parties on the left – the likes of Labour and the Soc Dems – will surely, if they are sensible, present themselves as a moderating force in a Sinn Fein led Government. Once the idea of SF led government becomes baked in, there’s a real danger for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael that voters opposed to the idea may just give up on stopping it, and focus instead on strengthening the hand of people like Ivana Bacik or Roisin Shorthall.

The Government has one last chance at change, but it probably won’t be able to take it. That chance will come later this year when Mr. Varadkar resumes the premiership. He could, you suppose, present his Government as a new administration with new ideas and new priorities. The problem there, though, is that doing so would necessarily mean repudiating Mr. Martin, and Fianna Fáil, and trying to pin the blame on them. Which is a hard thing to do, when you need their votes to stay in office.

Besides, there’s no evidence that Varadkar, or anyone else in Government for that matter, has any idea of what kind of change might be popular. They’re drifting along, with the same old plan they’ve had for a decade: Keep the ship steady, and try to win over the young voter by being hip and cool and liberal. It’s not working, and it’s not suddenly going to start working now. We’d best start preparing ourselves for Taoiseach MacDonald.



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