Government will need strong sense of vision about how a stronger economy can contribute to a
more equal society, writes Fergus Finlay
It’s safe to predict the following dates now, give or take a day or two. The Dáil will be dissolved on February 3.
There will be a 22-day election campaign, and the general election itself will take place on February 26.
The Dáil will meet again to elect a new government on Tuesday March 22.
The intention will be to ensure that a new government is in place in time for the commemorations of 1916 (Easter falls the week after the Dáil resumes).
That’s where the safe predictions end (And of course I should remind you of the famous political correspondent who, whenever he was challenged about one of his categoric predictions that turned out to be wrong, always said it was right at the time).
The hard questions remain. Who will form the new government? Who will be the incoming Taoiseach? Who will preside over the 1916 commemorations?
When I worked in politics, a long time ago, I only ever believed the opinion polls I wanted to believe. That was one of those gut reactions where the heart ruled the head.
The unpalatable truth, to dreamers like me, is that, in the Irish context, opinion polling generally has been a reasonably exact science.
There are very few instances where pollsters have got it desperately wrong.
Back in the day, MRBI was the premier polling company when it came to politics, with a long and decent track record. Now they’re called something different, and they have competition in the form of a number of other companies.
You’re always told that you shouldn’t compare results from one company with another because they all employ slightly different methodology.
So we’ve never had a “poll of polls” tradition in Ireland, unlike other countries.
In the USA, for example, it’s considered routine to “average” the polls. Probably the best website on American politics (at least in the sense of being the most impartial) is realclearpolitics.com. Every day they publish an update of their poll averages in the various races gathering steam at the moment.
We’re only a few weeks away from the Iowa Caucus and the New Hampshire primary — the first real electoral contests to decide who will battle out the Presidency for the Republicans and the Democrats.
So polling is going on night and day in those contexts, and RCP is using the averages of all those polls to start to make predictions about these critical contexts.
At the moment, they have Trump well ahead in New Hampshire but just behind Cruz in Iowa; and Clinton well ahead in Iowa but behind Sanders in New Hampshire.
If all those predictions turn out right, then neither Trump nor Clinton can be seen as a shoo-in for their party’s nomination.
Incidentally, RCP’s national polls suggest (nearly a year before the actual election) that the candidate most likely to win a presidential election in the States is the Republican’s Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American from Florida.
Their local polling, however, suggests he has a long way to go before becoming the Republican candidate. If he does make it, remember you heard it here first!
But to come back to ourselves.
If we were in a position to assemble a “poll of polls”, all they would tell us is that there is a real possibility that we’re all going to wake up the day after the count is complete and wonder what the hell we’ve done.
The only safe conclusion to be drawn from the current state of the polls is that Fine Gael are likely to be the largest party, and that Enda Kenny is in poll position to replace himself as Taoiseach.
That would, in itself, be a historic first. But how does he get there? Fine Gael would have to hold every seat they have now and win 12 more to have a bare majority in the new Dáil (which will be considerably smaller than the old Dáil).
That seems like an impossibility — the most recent opinion polls are good for FG, but still around 30%. They need at least another nine or 10 points to break through the magic majority number.
Nobody else is threatening them. This will be the first election in my lifetime where it will be impossible to take seriously the idea of an alternative Taoiseach. Micheál Martin? Gerry Adams? Really?
The funny thing is that Fine Gael’s strength going into the election is also their biggest weakness. The strongest card this government can play is the need for stability as the economy recovers, but that’s not enough.
If there isn’t a strong sense that government can be elected, with a vision and a purpose for the next five years, there’s no real incentive not to vote for whoever we like.
There is added irony in the fact that the next government of Ireland will inherit a situation that was unimaginable five years ago.
Then, we were mired in a political shambles. The last government expired in the most complete mess any of us have ever seen. Now, despite some political mistakes along the way, this government looks coherent and integrated.
Then, our economy was in the deepest crisis we’ve ever seen, literally looking like it was about to topple into oblivion. Now, the economy is the fastest growing in Europe, and all the signs are the next government will inherit, in very short order, a budget surplus.
Then, we were saddled with unmanageable debt — we talked of how we had mortgaged the future for generations. Now, we’re in a position to start driving debt down.
Then, we had lost our sovereignty. Now, it looks as if we can approach the anniversary of the 1916 Proclamation with our heads held high.
Like many others, I’ve been critical of some of the choices this government has made. We are a less equal society than we were — although, mind you, we also squandered the chance to make inroads into our inequalities when we had plenty.
But overall, I believe history will record that the government now about to leave office was remarkably successful in turning around the economic and political fiasco they inherited.
Whoever emerges victorious from the election will inherit an extraordinary base on which to build.
But what will they build? Will they even be interested in building? The first skirmishes of the election campaign suggest that this will be an election fought over taxes.
Worse than that — the election promises made so far suggest that there are parties out there interested in wooing better-off people with aggressively unfair ideas like flat taxes.
Flat tax systems mean only one thing — people on low incomes subsidise massive tax cuts for people on high incomes.
How anyone can regard that as a civilised way to approach an election baffles me.
There is still time for this government — or indeed a credible alternative — to come together around a sense of real purpose.
They have to be able to approach what we know about the economic future with honesty, but above that with a strong sense of vision about how a stronger economy can contribute to a more equal society.
I’ll try to explain what that could look like next week.
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