As we head into the final two and a half months of 2019, I wanted to write a little about the current state of play in Irish politics. A lot has changed in the public’s perception of the parties, while many of the underlying, fundamental dynamics remain the same since I last wrote a piece.
My headline back in March was “If the Next Irish General Election comes in 2019, it's Fine Gaels to Lose...” and while they may still be slightly ahead in the polls – though it could equally be called a dead heat – I no longer think this is the case.
I wrote a lot about how the Confidence & Supply agreement was more favourable to Fine Gael than Fianna Fail. There are two main reasons for this, and they weren’t as obvious when the C&S was agreed back in April 2016.
The first is Brexit. I don’t know if there has been a “safer” issue to don the green jersey than Brexit for Irish politicians in my lifetime. The signing of the Good Friday Agreement was a phenomenal achievement, but it involved major compromises by all sides and there were many awkward meetings that didn’t always make for the best of optics.
Brexit is different in the sense that nearly all Irish politicians are united in their opposition to any land borders on the island of Ireland. It also helps that the government’s position has been wholeheartedly endorsed by all the European countries and many high profile Democratic politicians in the US.
As the Brexit vote came in June 2016, it was impossible to foretell but I am quite confident in stating that Micheal Martin would have demanded a frontline role in Brexit negotiations had he known how prominent the issue would become. It’s been a difficult position to have where you back Fine Gael’s actions but have to try and garner some attention/credit for the accomplishments.The second issue is the economy. It probably was a little more predictable back then that the Irish economy would continue to have another 2-3 years of strong growth as the Irish economy was buoyant the global outlook was also positive.
However, in my view, Fine Gael have squandered a lot of this potential upside by failing to adequately address two of the public’s major concerns; health and housing. The Children’s Hospital scandal severely dented Fine Gael’s reputation as the party of economic prudence while continued housing shortages and astronomical rent prices have helped to facilitate Fianna Fail’s resurgence in Dublin and other major urban centres.
This led to Fianna Fail leading a national opinion poll for the first time in on April 16th since July 2017, while leading five out of the ten since. They are now the bookies’ favourites to win the most seats at the next election and Micheal Martin is the favourite to be the next Taoiseach.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 think the Greens are in a stronger position since their strong showing in the European elections in May, as well as a European-wide boon in green party voting support. Their main decision in any pending election campaign will be deciding whether to openly court being part of a coalition or whether they want to stand alone and continue to grow their support from the opposition benches.
This could be seen as a battle between the old guard who have experience of the perks of government against the Young Turks who want a radical overhaul.Their current ceiling seems to be around 10-12% but I actually think they could hit 15% in polls in the run up to a General Election with a well-executed campaign.
The final point is when will the election take place. I predicted at the start of the year that it would fall some time in 2019. However, once Brexit was delayed from March 29th and October 31st was the new deadline, the consensus moved to a Spring/early Summer 2020 election. This position was endorsed by both parties at the time.
I do think that the gradual increase in Fianna Fail support at the expense of Fine Gael leaves Leo Varadkar with a major strategic decision; does he decisively strike with a (if it happens) post Brexit deal snap election or wait and hope that Fine Gael will increase their lead again between now and next Spring. At this stage, it is probably more likely that the election will happen in 2020 but I do think many political commentators are underestimating the chances of a snap late November/early December election.
Regardless of when it takes place, I still think Fine Gael are slight favourites unless there is a disastrous crash our No Deal Brexit or another major financial scandal erupts in the days preceding the vote. Alternatively, an election held after the public deem Leo’s handling of Brexit a success could be very beneficial for his party’s chances of forming the next government…