In one sense, the findings of the TNS mrbi opinion poll are meaningless in the greater scheme of things. We’re still descending to base camp after all the high-altitude stuff — it will be next year before we will see the ambitious expeditions towards the next electoral Everest begin.
Having said that, the result is illustrative of the dynamics within FF and the party’s complacency and mediocrity since the summer.
Since forging its very cute and very clever deal with the Greens, the PDs and the four independent TDs, Fianna Fáil’s leadership has been doing what it’s become good at (feathering its own nest) and doing what it’s become bad at (looking after the rest of us).
The timing of this poll could not have been worse for Fianna Fáil. The sampling was taken in the immediate wake of the cringe-inducing reverse over provisional driving licences and a couple of days after they accepted massive pay hikes for themselves and the top brass of the civil service, universities, local authorities, army, Gardaí and the judiciary.
It also came a week after the Department of Transport report into who knew what about Shannon losing its Heathrow slots.
There’s a backstory, a context to all that. Bertie Ahern’s remarkable filmic tale at the Mahon Tribunal encompassing amnesia and his experience with international money markets was still fresh enough in some people’s minds to be reflected in this poll.
It’s a stinker of a poll for Fianna Fáil and for Ahern himself. But when it comes to pinpoint accuracy, opinion polls have the same record as the Limerick hurling team in the All-Ireland final. The 3% margin of error, plus or minus, is too often ignored by the media. So a party showing 12% could be on 9%, and equally could be on 15%. The upshot is polls are not good at picking up small shifts in support for smaller parties.
The corollary of this is that polls are good at reflecting large shifts of support (outside the margin of error) for the larger parties. And so we can take it that nobody in Fianna Fáil can quibble with its monumental 9% drop in support.
Nor can Ahern. His stock has fallen dramatically. What is unclear is whether this is a one-off (an immediate reaction to a dismal week for FF) or whether the Teflon coating on his anorak is finally beginning to wear thin. My inclination is that the massive pedestal on which the Irish people put this remarkable politician is finally beginning to totter.
A couple of people said to me: What difference does it make anyway? Sure, won’t he be hanging up the anorak at the next election?
It makes a big difference. Ahern wants to stay on until when he wants to go. And he has given no indication so far it’s going to be earlier than 2011, even though most within Fianna Fáil are thinking of 2009.
If Ahern’s popularity fails to recover, you will begin to hear sounds from Fianna Fáil committee rooms not heard for many a year — the nervous shuffling of feet and the sharpening of long knives.
The paranoia of some of Bertie’s closest handlers about The Irish Times poll will not be alleviated by the inclusion of Tánaiste Brian Cowen among the leaders for the first time. They’ll believe this was deliberate just to make Ahern look bad. I think the reason for his inclusion was simpler — he is, after all, the anointed one and people are curious about his standing.
But his popular showing of 49% compared to 43% for his leader will have an inevitable ripple effect within FF — and may see some of Cowen’s supporters (who are more impatient than he is) make subtle moves nudging him in that direction.
I’d love to think that the poll was a reaction to the disgraceful pay rises the top brass got last week. It wasn’t solely that. People expect that — they’ve become inured to the naked money grabs. I really believe the pay increase was an affront to democracy. Ahern said there was no review in seven years. In fact, an interim increase of 7.5% was awarded two years ago. And ministers and TDs like Ahern, Cowen and company have benefited from every single national award and benchmarking award over the past seven years. In fact since going into office 10 years ago, Ahern has seen his salary increase 133%. And the independent review body he so lovingly refers to is, in fact, independent. But for most of its world-of-business membership, big six-figure salaries are the order of the day.
Have politicians as a body made one personal sacrifice over the past decade, or ever? No. The class that has grown up to run our State and its institutions is self-perpetuating — increasingly looking after its own interests first and foremost.