ALISON O'CONNOR: As parties jockey for poll position ahead of the election, the outcome is far from certain

Micheál Martin during his Presidential Address at the 77th Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis at Citywest Hotel in Dublin. Picture: Conor McCabe Photography

IS THIS going to be a cod liver oil general election or a plague on all your houses one, asks Alison O’Connor

The difference between the two in the end could be whether the Government is re-elected, or we have another election fairly quickly afterwards.

In the first instance the voters will hold their nose as they approach the ballot box, but opt for the status quo, as in the current Government, possibly with a few independents. In government circles they are under no illusions that the votes they garner will be cast with any degree of affection, they’ve discarded their pride in that respect — in the end a vote is a vote. It will be a case of hold your nose and drop that vote into the box.

According to this theory, the 20% or so undecideds who hold the fate of the Government in their hands will have their minds focused by the campaign and despite their misgivings and annoyance will stick with those establishment parties.

As parties jockey for poll position ahead of the election, the outcome is far from certain

This week Noel Whelan published the fourth edition of The Tallyman’s Campaign Handbook in advance of the election. In it, Richard Colwell, managing director of Red C, writes that a big question in the run-up to the election is how strong the claimed support for independent candidates really is.

“Or, rather, whether claiming you will vote independent to pollsters at mid-term is a different way of expressing your anger at the established parties, one that may be reversed as the realites of who you will vote for at the ballot boxes draws near. They are torn between anger at the austerity and broken promises they believe this Government is responsible for, and the reality that the parties they voted for at the last election are still probably the safest bet for not rocking the boat over the next five years,” writes Colwell.

But there is no guarantee whatsoever of this return occurring. There is an element of wishful thinking in Fine Gael and Labour. But the current sour mood of many voters makes even the most experienced of political practitioners have a doubt in their minds as to how it will go. Irish Water, they agree, was the straw that broke the camel’s back for many in terms of austerity, and while it is not spoken about too much now, they know it lives large in the memory. Could there be weeks of negotiating following the election and the cobbling together of an all sorts government?

As parties jockey for poll position ahead of the election, the outcome is far from certain

The way the trend had been going it was a surprise to see the Government parties did not perform better in the two opinion polls last weekend. Fine Gael fell two points to 30% in the Sunday Business Post/Red C poll, with Labour unchanged on 9%. But in the Sunday Times Behaviour and Attitudes poll Labour had fallen to 6%, dropping two points, with Fine Gael unchanged on 31%.

Having said that we are still only speaking of minor increases and decreases, within the margin of error for opinion polls. On top of that is the general unease over these polls following the British general election and how spectacularly the pollsters got it wrong. Indeed Fine Gael, with the intense polling it has done as a party, will tell you that Fianna Fáil had been performing better than they were showing in newspaper polls.

An independent review into the polls cock-up in the UK found that key groups were under represented among those polled, not least the over 70s, who swung towards the Conservatives, or the under 30s, who tend to be left leaning but then often don’t turn out on polling day.

There is another theory — that there will be two elections running on parallel lines — the one that will happen in Dublin and other urban areas, and the one that will take place in rural Ireland. In Dublin, it is almost back to the old days of the boom with the car sales, traffic jams, job announcements, and frustrations in trying to book a restaurant.

As parties jockey for poll position ahead of the election, the outcome is far from certain

Other places are slowly following suit and I have written before of how I noticed on my summer holidays that West Cork, for the first time, was showing signs of recovery with a good holiday season, despite the bad weather, and a sense of optimism among business people. But there are other areas of the country where the recovery is only something that they hear about, where shops and pubs and businesses continue to close up, and you can walk down the main street of a town and every third establishment is shut down. That disparity presents a real difficulty for the Government in terms of highlighting their economic success. There are many places where such boasts will ring hollow.

There is also speculation about two general elections for Fianna Fáil; a poor one in Dublin and one that is harder to predict in the rest of the country. In fairness the party, using the publicity surrounding its ard fheis last weekend, certainly managed to put its own stamp on the political narrative wondering about the dangers of a right-wing Fine Gael with the Taoiseach’s promise that we would end up with a US tax base, and how this would mean savage cuts to public services.

Micheál Martin gave a very good and fiery televised speech on Saturday night and the delegates were well up for it. It is quite obvious from the outside that he is by far the best asset that the party has, but the thing is that internally his currency is far too weak. Party discipline, for people like John McGuinness and Mary Hanafin, is a bit of a novel concept.

As parties jockey for poll position ahead of the election, the outcome is far from certain

Given the two that are involved it is difficult to know if their openness to coalescing is borne out of a deep rooted political sensibility, or an irresistible opportunity to give Micheál a bit of a kick. Both, I suspect.

Those that hold the line, Micheál included, are going to be exhausted from attempting to answer the question the media will never tire of asking them from now until polling day — how can they profess the ambition to be in government, while ruling out Fine Gael and Sinn Féin? What are they basing their numbers on? Fianna Fáil showed a slight increase in both polls last weekend but even a significant one over the next few weeks would not be enough to give weight to their argument of being able to form a Government. It’s a valiant effort but there is a big hole in their logic that will not be ignored.

The truth is that this is a very hard election to call. I find myself agreeing with the last person with whom I happen to have had a detailed political conversation.

Those expressing great certainty about the detail of the outcome owe a lot to their own self-belief, when at this point, a crystal ball might be the more appropriate prop.

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