So here’s a focus group for you. It’s not a representative sample, but focus groups aren’t meant to be. It’s serious people, all around my age, both genders, mixed political views, having a serious discussion about Irish politics. They are wise, with the experience of age and hundreds of years of work between them. There was wine and cheese involved (very bourgeois!) but nobody was slurring their words. The conversations got animated at times, but never too heated.
I tried to steer the discussion into things like, who do you trust? Who do you like? Is there a difference? What do you want to happen? What do you think is going to happen? What are you hoping for? What are you afraid of?
Here’s what emerged, complete with the odd quote I scribbled down. And don’t forget, these are people who vote. A lot of them have changed their votes over the years — perhaps not so much in party politics, but certainly, when it came to referenda, the change between the 80s and the 90s and later was profound for many of them.
They think Micheál Martin is a statesman. Wasn’t always but is now. They like him and trust him, and they’re sorry his time as Taoiseach is coming to an end. It is a complete mystery to them that there are so many rumours about a heave against him. “I can’t think of a single other member of FF who would be capable — or that I’d even recognise”, said one.
They weren’t 100% sure that they could pin a particular achievement on Micheál, certainly not as Taoiseach, but he was steady, a good captain in choppy waters (one of my friends has a boat), and seemed to carry weight abroad. And he was like the adult in the room a lot of the time.
They like Leo Varadkar sometimes and he drives them mad other times. They trust him with the big stuff, but they can’t understand why he seems to want to be the centre of attention all the time.
“There was a politician you used to talk about a lot,” said one of my friends, “who would go rigid with excitement at the sight of a microphone. That’s Leo for you!” At the same time they were glad he was there at the start of the pandemic. At precisely the moment when Boris Johnson and his people were flirting with herd immunity, Leo shut us down. He was firm and authoritative then, just when we needed him to be — and he had a totally united government with him. If, as a leading independent study says, excess deaths in the UK over the first two years of the pandemic were ten times what they were in Ireland, that’s the difference between Leo and Boris. “That’s what he needs to find again,” said my focus group.
A lot of sad shaking of heads when I tried to steer the discussion around to my own outfit, the Labour Party. “Stuck in the mud, with no clue about how to get out of it,” said one. There was a consensus among the group that “Ivana was great”. But when someone asked “what does she know about economics?”, a sad silence ensued.
These are all people who would have readily voted Labour at different times in the past. But they see little point now. “We’ve a really good Labour woman where I live, and I’ll probably vote for her,” I was told. “But I’m trying to figure out what difference it might make.”
They love the Greens, my group, but not so much Green people. They find them indecisive, incapable of sticking together, never willing enough to stand up for each other.
“We’re all green now, aren’t we?” said one of my friends. “So why does Eamon Ryan always seem so smug about the sacrifices we have to make?”
Then we got into the meat of it. Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin divides a group nowadays the way Fianna Fáil used to. None of the people in my group would admit any intention to intend to vote for Sinn Féin. It was said more than once that names like Jean McConville still resonate — just as much as the name Mary Lou. Words like sinister are still heavily attached to the label for my generation.
But most of them have kids who are maybe going to vote Sinn Féin or have already. And they understand why their kids feel that way. “They don’t remember Jean McConville,” said one. “They can barely remember Gerry Adams!” There’s a conflict here. They wouldn’t choose Sinn Féin, but they expect to be governed by Sinn Féin, at least in part, after the next election. When I pushed the group a little, the reaction I got was almost resignation. It’s going to happen, whether we like it or not.
There’s data to back this feeling up, of course. Behaviour and Attitudes publish a lot of polling data, and they’re pretty good at it. By my memory, in the poll they ran just before the last general election, they overstated Fianna Fáil and understated Sinn Féin — in both cases by about 4% — but got everything else more or less spot on.
In their most recent poll, which has Sinn Féin comfortably ahead of everyone else, Mary Lou has a much higher approval rating among younger people than older people.
The funny thing is, nobody in my little focus group has the slightest doubt about what will happen when, and if, Sinn Féin gets into power. Some think they’ll be different in some respects. One friend with deep roots in political practice said they’d be Leninist in terms of organisation, but Fianna Fáil in policy — more disciplined than we’ve ever seen, but just as pragmatic in the face of everyday challenges.
They will, my group believes, be much more skilled at blaming others for anything that goes wrong. Looking pointedly at me, one friend said: “I wouldn’t want to be their junior partner. They’d make Fianna Fáil look like your granny”.
And there is real, long-lasting, and deep-seated distrust of the party and its past, and especially its unwillingness and inability to stop glorifying atrocities and the people who committed them. But here’s the (perhaps) sad consensus of my little group of elders. It’s their turn.
They had a mandate to be included in talks about government formation the last time, and no one would talk to them (at least no one who could make a difference). They’ll have a bigger mandate the next time, and they’ll be the ones deciding who to talk to. And they won’t be “off-limits” for anyone else.
If you look at the detail of the most recent Behaviour and Attitudes poll, there’s a line in the commentary that says “volatility is the nature of the game currently”. I’m not so sure about that. Of course, barring scandal or accident, we’re a long way from a general election. But my focus group thinks there’s very little doubt. They’re on their way.