Even the diehard Fianna Fáilers turned their backs

A FAITHFUL dog never abandons its owner, and core voters display something of the same loyalty to their parties. No matter what the party does, the core voter tends to stick with it through thick and thin.

Even on its worst day, Fianna Fáil can usually depend on a core vote of somewhere between 28% and 30%.

This, then, is the reason why the latest opinion poll has proved so stunning. After enduring a truly miserable week, it was to be expected that the popularity of the main government party would decline. But the double-digit scale of the decline was a big surprise.

Fianna Fáil fell by 10 points to a mere 26%, below its core vote, meaning the party lost some of its diehard supporters.

Based on those figures, Fianna Fáil would lose about 30 seats if a general election were to be called right now, bringing its time in government to a sudden and brutal end.

Of course, the figures have to be considered in context. The Sunday Business Post poll of about 1,000 voters was conducted Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of last week, when fury about the Government’s plan to remove the automatic right to medical cards for the over-70s was at its apogee.

The timing was unquestionably a factor. Indeed, closer analysis of the figures shows that, among those over 65, the number who said they would vote for Fianna Fáil fell from more than 39% to 23%.

The medical card controversy and other unpopular budget cutbacks were always likely to significantly dent Fianna Fáil’s popularity, and the party would have expected a hit.

While the hit was much bigger than expected, cooler heads in the party will tell themselves that this is just one poll, taken at the worst moment in Fianna Fáil’s recent history, and there is room, and time, to recover.

The key questions, though, are the extent to which the party can recover and whether it will do so in time for next summer’s local and European polls.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen needs to find some way of settling his party, and then settling the country. If the budget shambles is allowed to drag on, if the protests continue outside Leinster House, and if backbench TDs remain wavering in their support, the party’s rating may not rise by very much at all.

If, on the other hand, the party gets in line and Mr Cowen finally manages to convince the country that the hairshirt budget was necessary, Fianna Fáil’s health will gradually recover.

“Gradually” is the key word. Fianna Fáil local election candidates will look at these poll results and shudder, knowing in a few months they will be hitting the doorsteps for votes.

In the last local elections, in 2004, Fianna Fáil was going through another rough patch and the voters delivered payback for previous cutbacks. The party lost about 80 city and council seats, leaving it with just 302 councillors. In the months following that debacle, Fianna Fáil consoled itself with the knowledge that it could hardly sink so low again, and the 2009 elections would bring near-certain recovery. But right now, with the party’s popularity on the floor, that logic may have to be revisited. Next June’s locals look like another wipe-out waiting to happen.

Yet, that won’t be Fianna Fáil’s biggest worry. Traditionally, it has not fretted too much about local election results, for the simple reason that the general election is the one that really counts and, over the last decade, Fianna Fáil has consistently got it right on general election day. Crucially, however, on each of those occasions, the party was fighting the general election on its own terms.

When Mr Cowen took office in May of this year, the next general election was pencilled in for 2012 — plenty of time for the Taoiseach and his party to achieve the substance and produce the policies to win.

Given events of the past fortnight and the speed with which the party began to lose its cohesion, there is a real danger that a general election could take place much sooner, and not at all on Fianna Fáil’s terms. The result would see Brian Cowen’s tenure as taoiseach very short-lived. Which is why, in the coming months, Fianna Fáil’s priority won’t be the local elections, but staving off a general election at all costs.


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