Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Sindo Poll: An Inconvenient Truth

Fianna Fáil back in the lead, but
leadership is in short supply.
The Sunday Independent today published the second poll in just over a week to confirm the reinstatement of our erstwhile nemesis Fianna Fáil as the largest party in the land, coming as it did shortly after the Irish Times published broadly similar results.  In both instances, the don't know category was enormous, being 27% today and 34% last week, which gives some comfort.  But most don't know groups tend to break broadly with the trend, and therefore we need to presume that they're not all going to some consistent non-Fianna Fáil group, whether anti-bailout - a la Sinn Féin - or conservative pro-European - a la Fine Gael. Labour, I'm afraid, is indistinct.

Once we get over the initial anti-Fianna Fáil 'they wrecked the country' hubris, ands actually try and understand the trend, there are a number of pretty stark observations that emerge.  First, the large number of don't knows suggests that voters are fed up of everyone.  They are wandering around looking for some coherent representation, and in the absence of that voice will revert to past habits or abstain entirely.  Second, Fianna Fáil is benefiting from distance.  The further we get from the bank guarantee and the subsequent bailout, the more the blame for the current plight attaches to the current government, and to Fine Gael in particular, not perhaps for causing the mess, which is in the past, but for failing to get us out of the mess.  Third, Sinn Féin is solid and growing as the most consistent anti-status quo party in the country.  Any significant deterioration in the economic position could see their poll numbers dramatically increase.  In particular, a good mid-term local election season next year could see them in a position to seriously threaten as the largest party in the next Dáil.  Fourth, the Labour party has completely crippled itself.  Its only voice is that best represented by Joan Burton, a voice for the underprivileged, the working class, and the socially deprived who have been cruelly and disproportionately hit by the recession.  Yet just as they fight for social equity, they continue to deploy the whip and vote for austerity.  They are caught in an unenviable vice, and are likely to revert to their 10-12% range - the Labour core vote, if there is such a thing - in future elections. Sinn Fein has stolen their clothes on the left, and Fianna Fáil on the right.

There is a significant lack of credible, principled political leadership in Ireland.  Three major parties - Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour - are fighting for the conservative, myopic middle ground, with no ambition, vision or determination that the country has an alternate path.  Sinn Féin on the other hand offer an alternate vision, but one strewn with economic disaster, neo-communist blather, and unrealistic arithmetic.  The big headline here is that Irish politics is in meltdown, not merely Fine Gael, as suggested by the Sindo Headline.  I'll go back once again to the eerily prescient Theo Dorgan a few days after the last general election when he argued that having dealt with Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael were being given a chance by the electorate that they would inevitably spurn.  The true political reshaping of Ireland would happen, Dorgan suggested, at the next election.

There is one wild card in all of this, however - the juxtaposition of the rise of Sinn Féin and the centenary of 1916 may distort the outcome, one way or the other; the people may on the one hand look to a re-declaration of the independence of the State, a restatement of the republic.  On the other hand, the people may completely recoil from remembering what was a violent, narcissistic and ill-conceived adventure, and seek to completely distance themselves from the founding principles of the State, something like what happened in Iceland, or after the 1958 crisis in France and the return of de Gaulle in establishing the Fifth Republic.

That Fifth Republic brought with it a new constitution.  The current constitutional convention in Ireland is a bizarre and entirely pointless sop to civil society structures under the stewardship of the civil service.  Amongst the topics for 2013 (how long will this go on for?) are women's rights, church and state, the voting age, the presidential term, same-sex marriage, blasphemy, and voting rights for the diaspora.  The only subject of any significance is the Dáil Electoral System, which I am confidently predicting will not result in any significant change.

Fundamentally, these recent polls highlight that the legitimacy of the political system itself has been undermined. It is an indictment on the leadership, our economy, and our politico-legal system which has been found to be corrupt and unfit for purpose.  Where we go from here I don't know - but the current trajectory appears to me to be quite unsustainable.

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