Battered and dented, but still intact

Ahern’s latest woes have not been as damaging as might have been imagined, writes Political Editor Harry McGee.

Like a comic book hero, Bertie Ahern has a certain quality of indestructibility about him. During his first payments controversy last October, he got a proper charcoaling (to use this week’s running metaphor; the barbecue) but emerged without even a singe.

The opening of Fianna Fáil’s election campaign coincided with fresh allegations about Mr Ahern’s personal finances, carried in last weekend’s newspapers. The issue has dogged the Taoiseach all week and led to what has been, by common consensus, a dismal start to the campaign.

But the Irish Examiner/Lansdowne Market Research, the first opinion poll to be carried out in this campaign, shows that the impact of the controversy has not been as damaging as might have been imagined.

The sampling among 1,006 adults nationwide was conducted on Tuesday and Wednesday. At this stage, the issue of Mr Ahern’s finances was dominating the agenda though it might be said the controversy did not crescendo until later on Wednesday and Thursday and the Vincent Browne confrontation. But for all that, given the disastrous week that the party has had, Fianna Fáil will take some small comfort from the fact that its support is down, but that its election campaign has not been completely scuppered.

And after all his misfortunes and woes, Mr Ahern has emerged battered and dented, but still intact.

Fianna Fáil’s support levels are at 37%, some two points down on the last Examiner poll in September 2006 and five points adrift of the 42% that almost saw it win an overall majority in 2002. Realistically, the party was never going to attain those heady heights again. And 37%, if it happened on election day, would be the worst result since the party’s foundation in 1927.

It is indubitable that FF has had a train wreck of a week. And still its strategist will be able to point to this poll as a minor morale-booster. It still leaves the party in contention with three weeks to go and with 21% of those polled saying they were still undecided.

But the boost is only very minor. Last October, the party shot up in the polls on the back of widespread sympathy for the Taoiseach. This has not happened this time. The best it can say is that it has salvaged something from the poor opening, that all is not lost.

Yes, in the past FF has started high in the polls and gone downhill after that. But we may see a reverse of that pattern this time — or a plateau. If not, the party will be in meltdown territory. But as things stand it is still in the vicinity of the shake-up.

But then there has been a creeping trend away from the Government parties over the past six months and this one bears it out. The alternative Government has reinforced its credentials with both Fine Gael and Labour making strong surges since last September’s poll. Fine Gael is two points up at 26% and Labour is up three at 13%, a five point jump.

By contrast, the junior partners in the coalition, the Progressive Democrats will be in deep trouble if these findings are repeated on polling day. The party’s 2% showing will mean that it will retain only a few of its eight seats. The overall trend is unmistakably that of a marked swing away from the Government parties — a whopping 11% turnaround since last autumn when the Taoiseach was last embroiled in a financial controversy.

Now both alternatives are evenly poised on a combined 39%. If that is going to be the patterns of things to come, the Greens, with 6%, will become the undisputed king-makers and hold the balance of power.

While the party has not committed itself, the party would prefer a rainbow arrangement with FG and Labour.

At various stages over the past three years, we have seen strong surges in support for either Sinn Féin or the Greens. At various stages too, both have been portrayed as being on an “inexorable rise”. But these findings suggest that support for Sinn Féin might have plateaued and even receded a little — they are down one point at 8%, but will still make gains. The rise of the Greens might have come to a halt also and 10 seats now looks like the height of its ambitions.

The independents have also been written off by many commentators, with a high attrition rate among the sitting TDs. But at 9%, they may still be a significant force. As expected, core FF supporters have rallied around their beleaguered leader but his general satisfaction rating of 56% is comparatively respectable, still running ahead of Pat Rabbitte’s impressive 48% and Enda Kenny’s 41%.

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