ALISON O'CONNOR: Will the improving economy absolve the Government of its ‘sins’?

According to a recent poll, Enda Kenny gets a 31% party leader rating, just a point ahead of Micheál Martin.

If I were in charge of the re-election effort, I think I’d draft in the assistance of a good psychologist, writes Alison O’Connor

IF the Government is re-elected, it will be more out of voter resignation, tinged with sorrow and anger, than any positive motivation. The Government know this, and they are pitching their collective message to match the somewhat complicated public mood.

They are hoping for re-election, feeling more optimistic now than they did last month, but, equally, they won’t be too surprised if that time in power is short-lived as a minority government, and another general election has to be held soon after.

Nor will they be surprised if the campaign is beset by protests, and they are prepared for “taking it indoors”, as it were, to avoid ugly confrontation.

Given the level of anger among significant sections of the population, it would be no huge surprise to them if things turn ugly early.

Our hope, though, must be that something like this does not happen early on in the campaign, because the massive media exposure would simply result in a multitude of copycat incidents.

At that point, the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Cabinet members would be reduced to canvassing through the media, nationally and locally. That situation could suit them, and have the added bonus of getting more of their own voters back on side, voters worried that the country will be reduced to a state of anarchy.

Perish the thought, but there is no doubt that some of our political leaders may be actively hoping for a bit of protesting, which would highlight their near saintliness in the face of marauding crowds.

The caveat must be added that Tánaiste Joan Burton would have to be excluded from this, given her up-close and very frightening experience of how ugly such things can become.

Tánaiste Joan Burton
Tánaiste Joan Burton

There will, of course, also be leaders’ debates, in which the Taoiseach has indicated he will participate, and why wouldn’t he?

In RTÉ and TV3 and TG4, they probably won’t be too surprised to find the Taoiseach’s people quite happy with the idea of a come-all-ye line-up involving a rather large number of potential leaders, where Kenny can hide in plain sight.

You don’t need to be a student of politics to notice the consistent use of the not-so-subtle stability versus chaos message they have been pushing on us since the summer.

The parties, particularly Fine Gael, have been focus-grouping intensely and believe they know what messages to push, and, just as importantly, what not to say — to stress the level of sacrifice that Irish people have had to endure owing to the crash, and that if they wish to secure the economic recovery it is best to stick with the devil they know.

The last Red C Sunday Business Post poll, in which Fine Gael and Labour combined at 40%, gave a little bounce to the Government step, but this week’s Irish Times/MRBI poll, in which Fine Gael remained on 28%, after months of positive economic news, and Labour were up one point, to 8, hardly points towards big momentum.

According to the MRBI poll in Dublin, 34% say they will vote for Independents/Others, and that is a very significant number of people, showing the shift in our political landscape.

The Government comfort themselves that the “independent vote”, which is showing such a consistently strong presence in opinion polls, is “soft and weak”.

Some of it obviously is, but the imponderable is how much is that way, and how much is more solid.

Their research has shown that unlike in the past, when someone may have given their number one to an independent, and followed on with a number two and three for Fine Gael, or Fianna Fail or Labour, for instance, the second preference now goes to another independent in the constituency, even if it is one with a totally different political outlook.

The approach, as one strategist described it, is “a plague on all your houses” in terms of what people see as the establishment parties.

If I were in charge of the re-election effort, I think I’d draft in the assistance of a good psychologist.

Give the years that we have just endured as a country, everyone is bearing austerity scars, some that run very deep, and have not really healed very well. Even those who would be natural Fine Gael or Labour supporters feel betrayal on a number of issues, not least, for instance, regarding Irish Water.

This has been such “a monumental balls”, as one Fine Gaeler described it this week, that even party supporters feel acute embarrassment over it. There is also unhappiness over other issues, such as homelessness and the state of the health services.

“They won’t vote for us because they love us,” one Fine Gaeler said this week, “but while we made plenty of mistakes, we steered the ship to safety. We will be getting the message across that they don’t want to give up their own sacrifices. We will be telling them ‘This is your hard work’.”

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin

Indeed, it is easy to see the logic of this approach, but, still, this soreness against the Government persists and it is defying the normal political logic that a rising economy salves all wounds.

Why, for instance, are Sinn Féin slipping in the polls? The conventional political wisdom is that people begin to focus their minds as a general election comes closer, and think hard about who will best govern us. But the extension of that logic would mean a significant bounce for the Government.

The rating of the party leaders in the MRBI poll goes a long way to gauging the overall mood of the people, with the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, at 31%, just a point ahead of Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, and with Tánaiste, Joan Burton, at 29%. It’s not the worst of ratings, but does further indicate the flatness and disappointment that abounds.

We’ve been told by the Government side that, for instance, the Fennelly report has had no impact on the public, and that the opposition are just stirring the pot on it. In fact, what it does do is feed the cynicism of the general public against mainstream politicians.

In the next few months, we’ll be reminded a lot about Fine Gael’s much heralded five-point plan from the last general election.

It’s worth remembering here that the fifth and final pledge was to: “Overhaul the way our political system works to stamp out cronyism and low standards”.

You don’t need to be Freud to work out how people might feel conned by this particular failure, and how focus groups, spin, and even more money in our pockets, keep us largely unimpressed with the Government.


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