Latest findings suggest opinion and reality may be poles apart

Political Editor Harry McGee believes the results of the Irish Examiner/Prime Time poll are beginning to suggest everything is not as it appears in East constituency.

THIS time last month, Fine Gael winning a second seat in the East constituency was considered as likely as Leitrim winning the All-Ireland hurling final. The party had made little headway since the nadir of 2002.

This was just one of those racing certainties that had been offered around as a foregone conclusion in the constituency. But, as the polls are beginning to suggest, some of these conclusions were on the money; others, maybe, less so.

Consensus no. 1

FG would do well to hold one seat.

We got an inkling of things to come with the shenanigans between Avril Doyle and Mairéad McGuinness at the party's national convention in City West, with both vying to out-shine the other. That night, Finbarr Fitzpatrick, one of FG's canniest strategists, ventured to suggest that against all odds the battle might bring two seats to the party.

It was tentative, but that prediction may be borne out, if the findings of the Irish Examiner/Prime Time opinion poll are matched on June 11.

Consensus no. 2

Cassells would do well. On the basis of this poll, Labour seems to be vindicated in its huge confidence in former ICTU general secretary, Peter Cassells, who will be in the mix for the third seat. Victory or defeat looks as if it will be by the tiniest of margins. If pulls it off, he will become the party's first MEP outside Dublin for two decades.

Consensus no. 3

Mary White would have an uphill battle. The Green Party deputy leader will be disappointed with an 8% showing, a full six points behind the 14% vote share that the party's outgoing MEP Nuala Ahern achieved in 1999.

This might be explained by the loss of the recognition factor of a sitting MEP, White's location in Carlow, and voters switching allegiance to other opposition parties, mainly Labour, or to the large number of independents.

Consensus no. 4

FF would win two seats. This is the one that looks like it's going to be blown out of the water. FF went to inordinate lengths to hand-pick its best candidates, the imprimatur for each coming from Bertie Ahern. Though that strategy went a bit wobbly down west with Sean Ó Neachtáin, the party seemed certain to bank two seats in both East and South. Both now look questionable, though East looks far more ominous for the party than South.

Liam Aylward looks very strong and, on the basis of these findings, will top the poll. However, Seamus Kirk, with a fortnight to go, looks in real trouble. If his 8% showing becomes reality, he will have no chance and may find himself behind White, and barely ahead of Sinn Féin's John Dwyer, a Wexford-based candidate.

With McGuinness at 15% and Cassells at 14%, it looks like both will be in an edgy contest for the last seat behind Aylward and Doyle. But, in a fortnight's time, the dynamics and modalities could have radically changed. Comparing this poll to the Irish Times/TNS/mrbi poll of exactly a week earlier, McGuinness has closed the gap between herself and Doyle to four points, from 11.

Anecdotally, the former journalist and television presenter has a fair wind behind her. The highly individualised FG campaigns could be taken straight out of a reality TV show like, erm, Celebrity Farm.

It's not beyond the bounds of possibility that it could be Doyle who has to battle with the consistent Cassells (who is getting solid support from the farming community) for the last seat.

A caveat though. With a margin of error of 4% to 5% and a fortnight to go, it's impossible to make conclusive predictions. What the opinion poll can do is indicate the sweeping trends: FF down; FG and Labour up; the Greens down.

If you compare this with the 2002 General election, it represents a big drop for FF and a rise for FG. However, perhaps the 1999 Euro campaign is a more reliable comparison. Strangely, FF have dropped one to 33% while FG have actually dropped three to 31. But a smaller gap between the candidates and stronger transfer possibilities will see FG rise above FF at the end. The other big trends are the Greens' vote almost halved, with a 3% lift for Labour.

There's slightly better news for FF in the local elections, where it stands at 37% compared to 27% for FG. The Greens (8%) and Sinn Fein (9%) will be heartened while Labour, who did poorly in Leinster in 1999, would have expected a higher percentage than 9%.

The findings on citizenship show a dramatically different picture than the South and North-West constituencies. There, the respondents were evenly divided over whether children of non-national parents should automatically qualify for Irish citizenship. In East, a whopping 62% say they should not with only 29% saying yes. On the evidence of this, the referendum in the East would be comfortably passed.

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