The people's choice: building a new Republic
The Government has called it wrong; the election is not about economic stability, the people say it is about a fairer society, writes Jody Corcoran
We can parse and analyse the statistics in our defining opinion poll today to see who might form the next government, or we can talk about the sea change in attitude towards a common good that tells us everything we need to know about the mood of the country in the stretch of a General Election.
The statistics that indicate which parties, or none, may or may not make up that government remain unclear: but it is the mood of the nation that really informs us about this election and tells us what the people have decided. It is this: no longer is it just about the economy, this time it is about a fairer society too. How revealing.
In telling us that, this poll has exposed the Government in particular, Fine Gael and Labour, and has not quite damned, but also shows that the people are as wary as a beaten dog of all political parties.
In years to come, political and social scientists will look back on this election as the period when old certainties were shown to be fractured, if not entirely broken, and conclude that those certainties will either be lost forever, rediscovered or evolve into something new in time to come.
Fine Gael came to this election with a certainty that its failure to win in 1997 was to do with its failure to keep it simple: tax cuts and money in the pocket, the simplicity that led to the election of Fianna Fail at the beginning of the Celtic Tiger.
When he talks about it still, 'sources' close to Michael Noonan will tell you that the Rainbow Coalition blew it back then, but the truth is the electorate blew it in 1997. This poll tells us that lesson has been hard learned.
Five years later and the people were getting wrapped up in the Celtic Tiger by the time the election in 2002 came around, at which point Michael Noonan was leader of Fine Gael.
Coming off the back of the unspeakable betrayal of Brigid McCole and, we discovered last week, a letter about a girl called 'Grace', he presented an inelegant election slogan to compete with 'a lot done, more to do', which was: "If I were to describe the single greatest difference between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, it would be our passionate commitment to delivering first-class public services for all our people."
Fine Gael was destroyed in that election and Noonan resigned before the night was out.
Last week, he stood in the vaults of a Celtic Tiger shopping centre, at the mouth of the gleaming financial services centre, and he had the look of a startled bird upon his face as he tried to explain away the manipulation of what is referred to as "fiscal space".
Fine Gael's cri de coeur in this election is to "Keep the recovery going" when there is not a man, woman or child in the country who would not agree with that statement. They even have a three-point plan, as devised by some outfit close to the Tories in Britain. Focus groups be damned.
Fine Gael did not intend to make the same mistake this time: keep it simple, put money in their pockets - abolish the 'hated' USC, introduce US-style income taxes, slash every tax you can imagine, the details to leak, week after week.
It would have been the perfect plan in 2002, but not in Ireland 2016.
This poll tells us that only a third of the electorate agree with Fine Gael that the economy will go to hell in a handcart if they are not re-elected; in fact, most think a change of government will not put the recovery at risk at all.
So is Michael Noonan to be forever too late?
The most relevant finding in this poll is that half of voters (50pc) agree that a change of government would help make Ireland a fairer society, with agreement highest among supporters of Sinn Fein (81pc), Fianna Fail (70pc) and Independents/others (60pc). More than a third of Labour supporters and almost a quarter of Fine Gael's also agree change is needed for a fairer society.
The health service/hospitals, unemployment/jobs, the homeless situation/lack of local authority housing - these are the issues, the poll shows, ahead of 'management of the economy', which will influence how people vote in three weeks: in other words, issues related to what Michael Noonan in 2002 called "public services for all our people".
If Fine Gael has called the mood of "all our people" all wrong this time, then Labour has virtually lost all sense of itself or what it used to stand for. The party has dropped to 6pc, but that is not the full story: almost 40pc of those remaining supporters have some reservations or are not certain whether they will vote for Labour at all. The party is staring annihilation in the face.
Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein will be pleased with the results, more so than the Independents, although the headline figure may tell a different story - which is that Independents/others are up, the only bloc to have won support since our last tracking poll in November.
This is not to dismiss the power of Independents/others, but - mood aside - we are in the business of forming a government here: almost a quarter (24pc) of Independent/other supporters say they may not vote Independent at all. Interestingly, a fifth (20pc) of Fine Gael supporters also has such doubts about that party.
But such doubts about Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein are far weaker. Both are commanding relatively healthy support, both are singing from the same hymn sheet, to play on that phrase, "It's about a fairer society, stupid", and the supporters of both are far more locked in.
The problem with Sinn Fein, as far are voters are concerned, is that so few - only 13pc - trust them to run the economy.
This poll also tells us that two-thirds of the people expect to feel personally better off next year - the first time in a decade that a majority feel that way. The people know we have turned a corner, but they are sparing in their offering of credit to any political party and do not seem willing to risk their economic future with Sinn Fein.
Support for Fianna Fail is down a little, but it is not far off of its local elections result. Many Fianna Fail voters, borrowed by Fine Gael last time, have returned, but not enough - not yet, anyway.
This is the new reality within which Fianna Fail has to settle. But there is more space there for the party to settle. Because this poll also contains what we shorthandedly refer to as a 'toxicity' chart, that is, an attempt to measure which party is the most transfer-friendly. By a comfortable margin, Fianna Fail is so of all the main parties. Almost three-quarters of voters are open to giving the party a preference.
These are the 'silent' Fianna Fail voters, at yet still uncertain; or it may also be that many of them are unwilling to tell a pollster what they fully intend to do. If so, then it's game on, folks.
If you want further evidence that all is unwell for the Government, it is that, after everything, Fine Gael is within three points of the level of Sinn Fein toxicity.
There's more: most people trust Fine Gael to manage the economy (24pc), but not overwhelmingly so, just seven points ahead of Fianna Fail (17pc).
In summary then, here is what this opinion poll is really telling us about the business at hand: the election is still Fine Gael's to lose but may soon become Fianna Fail's to win.
What Fine Gael or Fianna Fail do with that power, together or separately, will dictate a future in which they will either hang together or twist separately. The future has begun. This election is but a stepping stone.