Economy is key to poll boost for Government

THE public prefer the Government to remain in control of the country's purse strings, a new poll shows.

The Fianna Fáil-PD coalition has opened up a significant gap over the opposition parties as the public's preferred option in the crucial area of economic management.

The present administration also remains the voters' choice as the preferred option to run the country.

According to an Irish Times/TNS mrbi poll, 39% of voters, up eight percentage points since September last, would prefer the current coalition to remain in government compared to a Fine Gael-led coalition with the Labour Party and the Green Party, up three points, at 33%.

On the important issue of which combination of political parties would best manage the economy, the poll showed the present Government opening up a significant gap at 44%, up 11 percentage points, as the opposition fell two percentage points to 39%.

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern yesterday said he was "happy" with the results of the latest opinion poll, which showed support for Fianna Fáil up 3% since last September.

Mr Ahern said the poll, which puts FF support at 37%, would help concentrate the minds of party activists selling its "big messages".

He was speaking to reporters in Mumbai, during the first Irish trade mission to India.

"I suppose I am always happy when we are up. For 11 years, I have given the same answer wherever I have been in the world, so I'll give the same answer here.

"Opinion polls are a snapshot of a time, but it does give encouragement to our people to work and to concentrate," he said.

Pointing out that the election will not be held until 2007, Mr Ahern said the poll would help his party keep the focus on its policies.

Support for Fine Gael fell slightly to 24% from 25%, while, there was good news for the Labour Party - whose support rose two points to 16%.

With a one pont drop for the PDs to 3%, the combined support level for the Coalition is 40%, the same as the combined Fine Gael-Labour support.

However, if the Greens were to join the Mullingar Accord parties, it would leave the combined alternative marginally ahead of the Government parties.

Fine Gael has a policy of never responding to opinion polls.

Party sources, however, attributed the slight drop in support for FG to the Dáil's long Christmas recess, and to a number of high-profile interviews (including one on RTÉ's Rattlebag) that were given recently by Mr Ahern.

Fianna Fáil believes Brian Cowen's budget in December contributed to its bounce in support.

A spokesperson for the Labour Party said the findings were satisfactory.

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