I was talking to a seasoned political correspondent yesterday who remembers looking at Bertie Ahern as leader of Fianna Fáil on the opposition benches and thinking to himself: ‘This guy is brutal. He doesn’t have what it takes.’
There is a hackneyed old chestnut that the only way you can prove you have the right stuff to become Taoiseach is by becoming Taoiseach and proving you have the right stuff.
Following the circular logic of that Catch 22 proposition brings you as far as Bertie and no further. But all the recent opinion polls — and the manner in which the Government’s support has been gouged at the margins by a series of scandals and controversy — present a very different picture. We tend to be conservative in our predictions. We tend to value the status quo. But the way things are trending at the moment, maybe it’s time for the people of Ireland to finally let go of the Anorak strings.
So many new narratives have begun since the start of campaign 13 days ago. We have been rained upon by the big ones — BertieGate; the nurses; the North; and Westminster.
But arguably the real story of this election campaign so far has been another rise and fall that has nothing to do with the big two. It has been the resurgence of the Labour Party in the past month — and in almost a perfect see-saw reverse — the decline of the Greens in the same time.
Yesterday’s opinion poll in the Irish Times gave a telling picture of one notable advance — like the Irish Examiner poll last Saturday and the Sunday Business Post Red C, it showed that Labour has put on a late late surge.
For three years, we have sought for a pulse in vain. For when the initial excitement of Pat Rabbitte’s election as leader died down (they hit a couple of peaks in early opinion polls) Labour amazed us all with its consistency. Looking at their record in successive opinion polls was like looking at a heart monitor attached to a corpse. The party flatlined.
There were many reasons posited. The parliamentary party were all crocks. Rabbitte had flushed all their hopes away by signing a Mephistophelean deal with Fine Gael. They had abandoned socialism for wishy-washy Blairite third-way candy floss social democracy. Rabbitte was too smart for his own good and nose dived every time he had to condescend to make small talk with the little people in the street. In short, Labour had lost any identifiable attraction for those who were traditionally loyal; or those whom the party wanted to woo.
Labour’s performance has surprised us all in the past couple of weeks. While you could never imagine Rabbitte waltzing around with the chutzpah of Enda Kenny in Ballinasloe this week, he’s less wooden on the hustings than he was and people have a huge well of respect for him. The default position of Rabbitte in the Dáil was negative and carping. But one thing that’s been really notable about the Labour campaign has been its positive tenor. Alex Salmand did this brilliantly in the Scottish election earlier this month. The English papers lampooned him as a balding overweight political Romeo but his ‘come hither’ wooing of the Scottish electorate worked. Ditto Rabbitte. The party’s message has been upbeat. And he has used his sharp wit well to often register the most memorable sound-byte of the day.
Conversely, the Green tide seems to be ebbing before it has had a chance to wash a brace of new TDs onto shore. While the polls have been a little more divided on the Greens, yesterday’s put them at only 5%, which is a reverse.
What seemed attainable a month ago (10 seats or more) is now beginning to look as reachable as Rockall in January storms.
What’s led to the reverse in impetus? To be sure, the party has found itself squeezed a little once the campaign proper has started. In the relative calm of the lead-up it was possible to put across a green message but once the fury started, it became big picture stuff (not global warming unfortunately, but whose behinds are going to warm the benches of the next government). The party may also have suffered from perceptions that it was trying to ride both horses home, by giving tepid backing the Mullingar Accord without fully ruling out FF. Trevor Sargent also remains a reluctant leader.
The party is still likely to gain three. But Sinn Féin looks like it will be a more muscular party. And Labour? Well never the 19% of the Spring Tide in ‘92. But at 13%, it could come home with 25.