thehighhorse
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Eye of newt and toe of frog: summer soothsaying on Irish politics

Photo by Masood Aslami courtesy of Pexels

Welcome once again to our semi-annual musings on the prospects for the Irish electoral steeplechase.

The race is a marathon, not a sprint. The winning post, dissection of the outcome and prospects beyond that are all some way off. But the trend apparent in 2021 has been reinforced by the movement of bookies’ odds in the first six months of this year. According to Paddy Power, Sinn Féin stand at 1/3 of winning the most seats at the next election (an implied probability of 75%). Fine Gael stand at 10/3 (23%) , Fianna Fáil at 11/2 (15%) and the rest are nowhere.

Fianna Fáil’s odds have revived a bit since December when they stood at 12/1. But this “bounce” seems less likely to reflect a trend towards that party establishing itself firmly in second place, let alone catching up with Sinn Fein, than greater competitiveness between the two “traditional”, civil war parties for second place, a long way behind Sinn Féin.

These odds reflect the trend of opinion polls of which I am aware of 17 published in national newspapers in the first half of this year: five each in The Sunday Times and (Sunday) Business Post, six in The Sunday Independent and a single one in April in The Irish Times. Indeed, The Irish Times has largely ceded the ground of frequent opinion polls to the week-enders which have, perhaps, a greater need to produce stories to “report” as news.

All of these polls have their own idiosyncrasies and reflect, to some degree, events at the specific time they were taken during the six months. And no matter how carefully pollsters phrase their questions, these are mid-term surveys with no election in prospect. They are more of an opportunity for respondents to take a free hit at the incumbent government than to affirm unswerving loyalty to the prospective alternative.

However, my “broad brush” distillation of their findings is this. Sinn Féin are running at 31–37% of voter preference (probably closer to the higher figure), Fine Gael at 19–24% and Fianna Fáil in a broader range of 15–25%.

Last week’s opinion poll from The Irish Times suggests that the trend of drift in support from the government parties towards Sinn Féin and “others” seems to be continuing into the second half of the year. In the face of current economic headwinds, that is no surprise.

It should be noted that the rise in Ireland’s population recorded in the preliminary results of this year’s census will flow through to an increase in the number of Dáil seats at the next election from 160 to around 170. If this translates into an increase in the average number of seats in Dáil constituencies, that might (repeat “might”) slightly benefit smaller parties and independents at the expense of the larger parties. In an already fragmented Dáil spectrum with plenty of pointless independents, that would not be a good thing.

Paddy Power doesn’t expect an election any time soon. The bookie is offering odds of 4/1 against one happening this year, a view reinforced by the Government’s comfortable victory in the recent Dáil confidence vote. Those odds narrow to 7/2 and 5/2 for 2023 and 2024 respectively. That the government will run for the full five year term of this Dáil before an election in spring 2025 is the bookie’s favourite at 11/8.

The bookie also expects a smooth transition in leadership of the present government from Micheál Martin to Leo Varadkar in December, offering the frugal odds of 2/9 against Mr. Varadkar being Taoiseach on 1 January.

My hunch, and it is only a hunch, is that there are probably more misgivings within Fine Gael about that transition proceeding as planned than is apparent in public. Any perception of Mr. Varadkar as an attractive or charismatic leader has long since paled to one of him as being somewhere between the lukewarm “tolerable” and the colder “we’re stuck with him”.

Indeed, stuck with him they probably are. A heave between now and the transition in December would be highly disruptive not only within Fine Gael but possibly for the Government as a whole. And a heave in the near term aftermath of his becoming Taoiseach again would be even more disruptive. He is probably safe through the next year, but on probation thereafter.

The commentariat have begun recently to talk Micheál Martin up after dismissing him as a hapless butterfingers for most of the COVID period. It is now conventional wisdom that he can have almost his pick of any senior ministry when he steps down as Taoiseach, possibly even that he may lead his party into the next election.

Both Mr. Martin and Mr. Varadkar benefit from the absence of any obvious heir apparent. But whereas there are several figures in Fine Gael who could claim credibly to be a better leader than the incumbent, there is no obvious pretender to that status within Fianna Fáil.

The one leader who is entirely secure in her position is Marylou McDonald.

The last election established her as a lucky general whatever about being a good one. Remember, in the European elections of 2019, Sinn Féin lost two of its three seats and secured 11.7% of the vote, barely ahead of the Greens, 5% behind Fianna Fáil and a whopping 18% behind Fine Gael. At the general election nine months later, her party led the polls albeit narrowly and finished with 37 Dáil seats to Fianna Fáil’s 38 and Fine Gael’s 35.

Her lucky streak continued through the post-election fallout. There is no other party or party leader on the opposition benches with any credible pretensions to lead a government. Sinn Féin IS the opposition. And the parties within the current government have been obliged to subordinate their individual identities to the fact of their shared participation in the “shotgun” government that was stitched awkwardly together in 2020.

The election is some years off and Sinn Féin support is not yet high enough to assure them of being able to form a government in its aftermath, but it is hard to argue that the prospects of their doing so have not improved during the first half of this year. A word of warning before we go further. Based on current polling, the present governing parties MIGHT scrape together enough votes and seats to be able to renew the current coalition, though the present numbers make that something of a stretch.

So now, on to the homily.

We travelled to France from Cork for our holidays the Saturday of the week-end before last. We spent the Friday evening before our departure with a friend of ours living in Cobh. Before travelling down to Cobh, I heard Marylou McDonald on Morning Ireland talking about the then impending Dáil confidence motion.

According to Ms. McDonald, this was a bad government that had run out of time, out of road and out of ideas.

In so many ways, instead of things improving over the last two years, things have got so much worse. Inflationary spiral, cost of living crisis, families are struggling…

Our ferry didn’t leave until Saturday afternoon so we were able to stroll around Cobh at our leisure for the morning. The fine sunny day (and maybe also our early morning rugby victory in New Zealand) would have put people in a good mood anyway. I was wearing a Clare jersey which would have identified us immediately as visitors. But we were greeted spontaneously and warmly by locals strolling the streets or tending their well-kept gardens. The Tidy Towns volunteers were out in force and the town looked well spruced up by their voluntary efforts. Some engaged us in easy conversation about the sterling efforts of the Clare hurlers in Munster and about the shortcomings of the Cork team. Along the waterfront was a long row of campervans, most of them Irish registered from all over the country, their occupants sitting outside soaking up the sun. All seemed right with their world. Though it must be said that most of those we encountered were, like ourselves, the far side of fifty.

At lunchtime, we headed over to Ringaskiddy for the boat. Sinn Féin’s Lynn Boylan was on the lunchtime politics programme on RTE. Echoing her leader, she justified the confidence motion because the country was in chaos, afflicted by myriad crises:

crisis in housing, crisis in childcare, crisis in health, crisis in the airport and crisis in the passport office…

The mood on the boat took up the baton from the cheerful atmosphere we had encountered in Cobh, as you might expect from people going off on holidays, the sunny weather they were leaving behind heralding what lay ahead. Crisis in the passport office? They didn’t seem bothered.

The ferry has multiple dining options from the cheap and cheerful self-service to white table cloth waiter service with dinner at €40 a pop (wine not included). There were plenty of Irish families enjoying the latter option with wine to boot, rounding things off with a pint or two in one of the many bars.

I suspect there is an underlying dynamic and momentum towards a change of government, a perception that the longer established parties are too accustomed to incremental tinkering, transfixed by the obstacles to radical action rather than driven by the need to effect it.

When an election eventually arrives, Sinn Féin remain well placed to harness that mood and harvest its implications. How bountiful a harvest it will be depends on the precise division of the country between those who believe the nation’s problems exist within a context of broad and benign stability and those who believe that any “stability” is fragile, more apparent than real, a brake on progress rather than an enabler of it, a thin lid on a pot of permanently simmering crisis.

Politics is always a contest between incumbents trying to seduce voters into believing they should be contented and insurgents urging the same voters to be mad as hell. The outcome is determined by the actual balance between those who are for the most part contented and those who are broadly discontented. The size and intensity of the latter constituency is nurtured if not engendered by vested media interest in promoting the notion of a permanent “state of chassis” for which the government bears primary if not sole responsibility and for which ordinary, decent citizens bear no responsibility at all.

Sinn Féin might do well to remember that getting into government is one thing. Holding on to government once you get there is another thing. People have spoken about politics requiring campaigning in poetry and governing in prose. Sinn Féin are campaigning in promises. Those promises are not merely to soothe and alleviate discontent and alienation, but to eliminate all the proclaimed ills of our social sphere altogether. That raises the bar for what will count as success. They are more likely to end up governing in deep disappointment.

In the modern age, enduring political loyalties have been supplanted by straightforward transactionalism and inflated expectation and entitlement. Voters will be very quick to bite the hand that fails to feed them the waiter service dinner it promised.

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Daire O'Criodain

Daire O'Criodain

Former diplomat and aviation finance executive, active now mainly in not-for-profit sector. Living in rural Clare. Weekly posts on Wednesdays.