Johnny Fallon

Irish Political Commentator

Archive for the month “October, 2012”

MRBI poll, food for thought for the parties

The latest MRBI opinion poll makes interesting reading.  However, its results will greatly depend on whether a pattern can be borne out and whether other polls will agree on its findings.  The last MRBI poll showed a sharp increase in support for SF that other polls did not mirror, this poll seems to have settled back into the normal pattern but equally could contain some anomalies.  All political parties would do well to hold their breath until they see a pattern emerging across a number of polls.

Nonetheless we can take some things from this poll.  For Fine Gael things are still looking good.  The party will undoubtedly feel that despite the old chestnut of ‘taking the tough decisions’ they are still easily the most popular party.  Anyone analysing these results should take into account FG history, and the fact that residing at 31% still makes it among the best periods of popularity that the party has ever seen.  It’s not all good news though.  FG is down 5% from its general election result and we have to examine what that means for them.  The first and most obvious thing is a loss of seats.  Much is made of how the Labour party would fear an election but despite the bravado scoring 31% in another election would not make FG happy now.  They would lose a lot of seats.  Before GE11 many maintained that FG could get an overall majority on a much lower figure than FF in it’s hey day due to getting more transfers.  I have always had my doubts on this theory.  Attaining those last few seats comes down to such a small amount of votes that it can be impossible to predict and as a party grows and candidates go over the line earlier they don’t get the same number of transfers (or need them).  That said FG had a very strong return on 36% of the vote.  Many feel FG would relish an election in the hope that they could gain an overall majority but on these figures I just can’t see it.  The government would have to fall on a very polarising issue which would see a massive swing to FG.  For any government party to get that swing in current circumstances is very difficult.  FG can be pleased that it is holding on to the centre vote and that this vote values security over the unknown always.  Put simply FG do not want a general election anytime soon, the plan must be to maintain their current position and then hopefully if a turn around comes in the economy or some major break is received in austerity they can get the credit and pick up a few points before a general election in 2016.

For Fianna Fail the poll is a morale boost.  It should not be seen as much more.  Just as FF did not disintegrate into doom and gloom when the last poll showed a rise for SF they should not get too elated by this poll.  The reason the FF figure is receiving such attention is due to the fact that their vote has remained incredibly static since the general election.  This poll shows them at their highest since 2010 and that is bound to raise eyebrows. The fact that the rise is mostly attributed to Dublin voters is also a positive for FF. They would be wise to await the results of other polls before welcoming this one too much if a pattern emerges then perhaps the comeback is on.  But right now the reality that this poll again points to, as with all others, is that there is no real gap between SF and FF.  SF may be disappointed to see support fall but then they may have expected this given the dramatic rise in their previous rating according to MRBI.  At 20% SF remain in a good position for dramatic gains and would not fear an election if the opportunity presented itself in the morning.

Could FF be on the way back?  It’s possible.  An Anomaly currently exists in Irish politics when you consider FF had the biggest party conference and hosts membership dinners and events that are better attended than most parties.  FF still has the internal machine to deliver a result.  Their problem has been that they don’t quite know what the message is.  If they figure that out they will take the first step.  Recently on individual issues they have isolated the message and that may explain this bounce.  The second issue is that in recent years FF had clearly forgotten how to use its massive organisation, making it big but useless.  SF on the other hand does not possess as large a machinery but has people at the helm who know very well how to use it.  IF FF can figure out what role its organisation can play then a comeback is possible.  There is also the fact that at a certain point an old FF vote may start to believe in the idea of a reformed party and return, particularly from FG.  I can’t see that tipping point being reached until FF would hit about 24%, so they are still some way off on that score.

In reality this is a morale boost for FF and not much more, the next Red C poll may confirm it or could just as easily see FF falling back, that’s how volatile the chasing group of FF, SF and Labour is right now.

Labour will be pleased that they rise 2% and there is perhaps a message in there.  Recent controversies seem to have helped Labour and it appears that a small party standing up for itself in government will always do better than one seeking harmony and coalition peace.  Labour will also take comfort from the fact that in all likelihood they would still be more transfer friendly than either FF or SF and this could give them a bounce in seats that might save a few TDs even though on these ratings they are definitely set to lose many seats.

So can we take it as a given that with both government parties looking set to lose seats an election will be avoided at all costs? Perhaps.  Certainly that’s how the party leaderships will view the matter.  On the other hand it’s not up to the party leadership entirely.  As TDs begin to fear for their seat and grassroots become desperate to stem the losses they will always start to add pressure.  Recent times have proven that waiting until the last possible moment does not necessarily give you any kind of electoral bounce.  Brian Lenihan is said to have suggested to Brian Cowen that they should seek an election in the early part of 2010, the perceived wisdom was that with the party languishing in the low twenties that would be madness and they would be better to wait until things improved.  The rest as they say is history.


Rebel TDs or just playing politics?

There has been much focus on tensions within the government of late.  The important thing is to spot what is genuinely damaging from what is just political game playing.  For instance, the recent controversy surrounding James Reilly was particularly damaging and its full effects are still to be felt as many in both Fine Gael and Labour now openly question the Minister’s motives.


On more recent days we have seen a groups attached to Labour and Fine Gael promoting policy positions publicly.  The FG one wants us to revisit the Croke Park Agreement.  The Labour one wants some form of Wealth tax and more income tax in order to ease the burden of finding more service cuts.  Neither of these represents a significant challenge or threat to the leaders of either party.  In fact I am not at all convinced by the protestations by both leaders that they wish such things would be said quietly in parliamentary meetings.  I think that Messrs Kenny and Gilmore are kept well briefed on what is being said among the party backbenchers and they know what they are willing to let go and what they are not.


This is negotiation, but of a type we have never seen before.  Never in Irish history has the electorate given such an overwhelming mandate as it did to this one.  When the Dail is full, it is still quite astonishing to sit in the visitor’s gallery and look at the seats fill up with some government TDs sitting on the opposite side to Enda Kenny such are the vast numbers that they command.  The electorate effectively voted to have no opposition.  Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein and the Independents are too small even when combined. The reality is even worse for they spend as much time attacking each other as they do focussing on the government.


This is not all good news for the government however.  Jack Lynch knew in the wake of a massive electoral victory in 1977 that keeping everyone in his party happy was going to be difficult.   In a short period of time he found everything unravelling and rows and arguments becoming more public.  However, that was a single party government.  The Fianna Fail/Labour coalition of ’92-’94 is a somewhat better example with media leaks and stories often driving the debate within the corridors of power.  The difference there however was that Reynolds and Spring never enjoyed the personal relationship that Kenny and Gilmore do.


What we are seeing now is the offspring of this enormous government.  It is a new form of communication and negotiation.  Fine Gael feel that they are so large now that they are within touching distance of single party government, that their numbers dictate that their policy must win out.  They also feel that Labour is too scared to ever walk out on them. Too terrified of what will become of them out there away from the security Fine Gael offers.  On the other hand Labour knows that it is losing its soul gradually and that the only reason to stay in government is if they can point to some actual policy initiatives.  They need to win something off FG.


Kenny and Gilmore are both restricted.  They must maintain the relationship at the top and must also be seen to be very good boys when the troika come calling.  The troika hate, and fear, political instability.  Any whiff of elections or arguments will be frowned upon.  The Labour grouping has done no harm.  They are stating policies that many Labour voters would agree with.  They are shoring up the grassroots and sending a message to FG that Labour has some serious demands.  Gilmore can say that he doesn’t support their position but at the same time turn quietly to Enda and say ‘You see? This is what I’m faced with I need something to give them.’  Meanwhile Enda is no fool, a little club of FG TDs are busily chipping away at the Croke Park Agreement.  This appeals to the more right wing and private sector led FG vote.  It reminds that vote that FG has not lost its willingness to push the case and be radical.  Now Enda Kenny knows that the Croke Park Agreement has only about 18 months to run, that there is little point entering months of negotiations to change everything and face possible strikes that would wipe out the savings in any event.  It might be possible to amend it slightly however and make a song and dance.  Therefore Enda can wag his finger at the naughty TDs while quietly turning back to Eamon saying ‘you see? I’m going to need something from you; our guys are chomping at the bit here.’


So welcome to budget negotiations big government style.  The best advantage of all is that a raft of TDs that nobody would ever have heard of mange to get their 15 minutes of fame to boost their profile.  In the end we will probably end up with some minor revisions for the top paid people under the Croke Park Agreement, nothing major, mostly window dressing but it will be hailed as a major victory for FG.  On the other hand we will probably get a 1 or 2% increase in the upper rate of income tax.  Compromises all round.


Is it leadership? Obviously not.  Is it brave? Certainly not. Its politics and the politics of fear at that.


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