So much for the old reliables

Issues today’s electorate consider most important would have been the least of their worries a decade ago, writes Political Editor Harry McGee.

NOTHING has stood still in the past decade. Like John Hinde postcards, RTE’s archive series Reeling in the Years shows an Ireland that no longer bears any relationship with reality. Even the footage from the late 1980s and early 1990s has a slightly other-worldly quality about it.

The issue that dominates the political agenda now would have been the least of everybody’s worries a decade ago.

Back then, it was the old reliables - the economy, the North and jobs. All have tumbled away as priorities. Ireland has a settled economy, almost full employment, and there is a sense the interminable peace process is drawing to a close. Management of the economy and the North are considered important only by paltry percentages of the electorate as important national issues (just 1% considered the North an important national issue).

One issue has come to the fore that was not only unimaginable 10 years ago but seemed to be flying under the radar until one E Hobbs appeared on the scene like a stealth bomber during the summer.

An extraordinary number of voters (25%) give their first mention to the cost of living/rip-off Ireland as the most important national issue. It is mentioned by 49% of those polled, nine points more than health, the other most important issue.

This is going to be a live one for the next election. The poll was done when Hobbs’s series and its fallout were still fresh in people’s minds. But with normal service about to resume in the Dáil, and at least 18 months before the next election, it may turn out to be a phenomenon of the moment that yields to the economy, health and education in time.

That said, the poll findings show the cost of living in Ireland has come right in to the centre of things. The breakdowns on the rip-off question show it hits home right across the board, for old and young, rich and poor, male and female, urban and rural, those satisfied with the Government and those who are not.

The only two cohorts for which it is less important are the over-65s and farmers (both rank it in the low 40s). It is a particular priority for females (51%); for those in the 25-49 age group and for blue collar workers (54%). Unsurprisingly, those dissatisfied with the Government are more liable to see this as the most important national issue.

The other striking thing to note is that despite the issue’s dominance, it seems to have had little effect on party support. The cost of living should naturally reflect badly on the Government. Yet Fianna Fáil and the PDs seem to be largely unaffected and have not taken the hit you would have expected. Neither Fine Gael nor Labour have got a bounce from this issue. One would have expected FG to show some return for the ripoff.ie campaign it has been running for almost two years.

Perhaps it has not yet translated into the political sphere. People have yet to think about it in terms of attributing blame to a particular party. It could be that no party has yet succeeded in taking ownership of the issue (you would think that by now FG should be identified as the champions of Rip-Off). There is the possibility too that the Government’s strategy to deflect criticism (don’t attack Eddie whatever you do; agree with him if necessary; defend our policies in general terms) has been successful.

In relation to the other pivotal issue, healthcare and medical costs, you can immediately see the effect it has had politically. Mary Harney has been the Minister for Health for a year. Her reform programme is a long-term proposition. Unfortunately, the electorate is impatient and already she is seeing why some regard the health portfolio as the end of ambition.

Her satisfaction and effectiveness ratings as Tánaiste and Minister for Health have taken a hit.

Like the Taoiseach, opinions on her are now grouped on each side of the political fault-line. Her overall negative rating as Health Minister is predicated on a 39% rating as an ineffective minister from those dissatisfied with Government. Until rip-off manifests, health will have the potential to down the Government (and the PDs) if she fails to show tangible progress.

The only minister with higher negativity ratings is Martin Cullen, but this relates to the controversies he became embroiled in and not to general Government policies. This is borne out by the high number of FF and PD supporters (33%) who deem him ineffective.

If Cullen and Harney are seen as ineffective, Brian Cowen and Mary Hanafin are the ministers who can do no wrong. Both have positive ratings from Government and anti-Government supporters, from those satisfied and dissatisfied. Hanafin in particular seems to have strong cross-party appeal - Cowen’s support is slightly more polarised within the FF/PD camps.

That is evident from the poll findings on Fianna Fail’s succession race. Cowen, the chosen one within the FF parliamentary, is also the favourite with voters. A quarter of the electorate, and an impressive third of FF supporters, nominate him as their preferred option to succeed Bertie Ahern.

That puts him ahead of his nearest rivals. Until a year ago, choosing the second-favourite would have been a no-brainer. However, Micheál Martin has had a tough year and took a lot of personal damage with Mary Hanafin and Dermot Ahern coming to the fore.

In the circumstances, Martin’s 16% support levels (19% from FF supporters) is respectable and he remains Cowen’s greatest rival. It is no great shock to learn the bulk of his support comes from Munster, where he has a 23% rating.

Hanafin underscores an impressive first year as a senior minister with a support level of 12%. But within FF it is only 11%, a by-product of her appeal to opposition supporters.

Dermot Ahern, who many see as a compromise or dark horse candidate, garners 9% support within FF (slightly less outside the party). Junior Minister Brian Lenihan has similar support, but would be very much an outside candidate.

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