Up until about three weeks ago, there was a widely held consensus that the next Irish election was going to be a two-way battle between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, where all the other parties would be squeezed, and the Golden Age of the Independents would come to an abrupt end. It hasn’t transpired that way and I want to add a few thoughts on why I think that is the case.
I am going to initially focus this article on Sinn Fein as their meteroric rise in the polls has been the story of the campaign so far but I will then take a deeper look at the four other main parties; Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, Labour and the Greens.
In fact up until a few weeks ago, I don’t think anyone really foresaw the rise in the polls for Sinn Fein that now sees them neck and neck with Fine Gael in joint second and only a few percent behind Fianna Fail (The Red C Poll today has them both tied first on 24%).
I had lost a little faith in Sinn Fein’s potential to be an agent of genuine change, as opposed to a protest party. I actually think Brexit is partly to blame for this. Brexit had taken up so much focus and media coverage that it was then easier for the political establishment and the average voter to simply assume it’s only between the big two as no one else was offering anything different.
In October, I wrote a state of play piece on Irish politics. It mainly focused on Fine Gael and Fianna Fail but did include this scathing analysis of Sinn Fein;
Sinn Fein have been stagnant in 2019 from a polling and (in my view) policy perspective. The Irish electorate are largely sick of protest, anger politics that dominated in the aftermath of the financial crash and the Troika but genuine frustrations exist.
More exciting policies are needed and while Sinn Fein are in the best position to deliver this platform (as the third largest party in nearly all of the polls) of progressive change, they are in danger of losing out if the Greens or the Labour Party can capture the momentum.
I didn’t realise that Sinn Fein had many of these policies in place. More importantly, they also had the frontbench to deliver these ideas in a modern and coherent fashion. It has been rightly noted that Eoin O Broin, Pearse Doherty and Louise O’ Reilly have been very strong in their media performances.
Mary Lou McDonald has undoubtedly changed the political landscape in Ireland. She has lifted Sinn Fein while also allowing the party’s message to connect with parts of the electorate that were simply unreachable under Gerry Adams.
Furthermore, her domineering approach and confrontational debating style have prevented the Independent News & Media group from simply portraying her as a puppet controlled by “shadowy figures” in the IRA Army Council. It just doesn’t work and when Micheal Martin has tried to use this line in the debates, it has fallen flat. Moving forward, the only scaremongering attacks that can be used on Sinn Fein will be over their economic policies.
In the two polls this weekend, Sinn Fein have polled 21% and 24%, averaging 22.5%. This would be an 8.7% increase in their vote from in 2016. It must be noted that Sinn Fein have in the past underperformed their polling but that was usually preceded by a gradual decline in polling from the start of the election campaign until the end. I don’t see any signs of that in 2020 and leads me to believe that they will hold up better this time around.
I expected Fine Gael to perform much better than they have done so far both in the polls and from a media perspective. The RIC memorial scandal was an absolute disaster and the worst possible start to the campaign and it now feels like a “Eureka” moment where the Irish electorate suddenly decided they’re just a bit useless.
They’ve made mistakes on health and housing but I did think that the overall state of the economy would be good enough for their vote to hold up but this is proving not to be the case. As for Brexit, even in my home Border constituency of Louth, I’ve been told it is not coming up on the doors at all.
Conversely, I think Leo Varadkar’s debate performances have slightly exceeded my expectations. In the debates, I actually think Varadkar has come across quite well. He definitely seems a lot humbler and I thought this approach might have led to a small boost in the polls this weekend. However, that has not been the case at all.
I am beginning to question if the viewers at home are seeing disinterest where I saw humility? I did say at the start of this post that I would not make predictions, but I can see Simon Coveney as the next Fine Gael leader in the not so distant future.
If you were a foreign observer or new to Irish politics, you’d think Fianna Fail would be happy with how this campaign has gone so far. They have been first in every poll and Micheal Martin is the clear favourite to be the next leader.
However, that only tells half the story and Martin in particular has had a very poor campaign. He has ruled out working with both Fine Gael and Sinn Fein but there is increasing dissension in the ranks that they must do a deal with one of the two in order to ensure a stable government led by Fianna Fail. He will come under increasing pressure if the polls are in any way accurate. I think he can still be Taoiseach if he works with Fine Gael but he has surely ruled out any agreement with Sinn Fein far too vehemently for a coalition to work *under his leadership*…
The Greens and Labour have both had decent campaigns, but Brendan Howlin has a much tougher task than Eamon Ryan. Howlin has probably performed marginally better but is facing a tide that is going out on Labour. Ryan has looked slightly all over the place at times and looks likes the “old guard” when contrasted with the optimistic, radical wing of the party as portrayed best by Saoirse McHugh.
Fortunately for him though, there are plenty of voters who will currently vote (or give a preference to) the Green Party candidate, such is the heightened awareness of environmental issues. They will have issues down the line about the future direction of the party but I expect them to be mainly all smiles when they are sipping on their organic Champagne on the night of February 9th.
The last debate is meant to take place on Tuesday night between Leo Varadkar and Micheal Martin. RTE have announced they will decide tomorrow if Mary Lou McDonald will participate. I actually see it as “win either way” situation for Sinn Fein.
If she isn’t included, the debate loses legitimacy and will have less public interest. If she is included, it will now be the “Mary Lou debate” but both Varadkar and Martin will have to be careful not to combine attacks on her, as this will play right into the Sinn Fein narrative of “they’re both the same”.
I may get write a little more in the run up to the election before making my final predictions for every constituency and seat on Friday evening. It’s been interesting campaign so far and, as I’ve mentioned already, one no one predicted. It is also clear that it will be quite challenging to come to a resolution after the debate. Finally, I think the next eighteen months may be one of the most fascinating periods in Irish politics in a very log time…