THE electorate can be somewhat fickle in their mid-term assessments of political parties. They are often not as engaged when compared to the white-hot intensity of an election campaign. This latest Sunday Independent/Millward Brown poll, conducted between February 16 and 28, highlights this. Nearly three in 10 (28 per cent) have no opinion or preference on who they would like to see in power, regardless of recent political turbulence.
However, we can still draw conclusions as to the psyche of the voting public. Fine Gael has slipped one percentage point, yet overtakes Fianna Fail since our last poll, by the narrowest of margins. We have had a swathe of polls recently, and the common theme has been the retreat of Fianna Fail from the political abyss. However, as noted a couple of weeks ago, this revival may be more a commentary on the current administration (or other alternatives) rather than a heartfelt endorsement of the Soldiers of Destiny.
There was incredulity among many that two years after effectively bankrupting this country, Fianna Fail was ahead in the polls. For many, it is not a White Knight to ease the ongoing pain of death by a thousand (financial) cuts.
Looking at these latest results, there is no doubt Fianna Fail has steadied its ship, but there is also a soft underbelly to this support (it is down four points in this latest poll).
The public has to a certain extent recovered from the initial trauma of the Government's botched choreography of promissory night. A heartfelt, albeit belated, apology to the survivors of the Magdalene Laundries has been made, and provisional agreement has been reached on the Croke Park deal – thus allowing some of the ill will towards the Government that Fianna Fail capitalised on to subside.
Some within government circles were non-plussed by Fianna Fail's revival anyway; come an election it will be easier for them to remind people of why and when we were landed in this mess.
For the time being, they will argue they are simply making the painful decisions to rectify the mistakes of the past. How they go about this, however, is another story.
Whilst Fianna Fail may have slipped, the Government has not benefited.
Fine Gael, at 24 per cent, is more or less steady. In reality, it has had an extended honeymoon, close on two years, when many unpalatable decisions were made.
It had a good innings before the opinions turned (which they were bound to do at some stage). For Fine Gael, it is better to be going through choppy waters now than in two years' time.
Labour, however, has more cause for concern. It has slipped two points in the week
Analysis Pages 10, 26, 27
the Government and unions reached agreement on Croke Park. Labour has (as junior parties in government often do), borne the wrath of the electorate. But this backlash was evident soon after it entered power. Elected on the promise of being an honest broker in Government, it has haunted it ever since. The stridency and apparent clarity of its pre-election promises has simply compounded the party's troubles.
Both Sinn Fein and the Independents will be pleased with these results, and the durability of their support will give them confidence for the future. In addition, they have picked up the slack where the other parties have dropped. However, eventually they will need to offer more than a protest vote, or that support could slip away just as easily.
Turning specifically to the future of the Government, less than four in 10 (36 per cent) believe this administration will survive the course until 2016. Given the size of its Dail majority, on paper, lasting the distance should be a shoo-in; which makes the public's perception even more illuminating. The optics being projected (outside of the Cabinet) suggest all is not well in terms of current policy direction. And the public has noticed.
While support among Fine Gael supporters is steady at 63 per cent, less than half (48 per cent) of Labour voters are as sure-footed in terms of seeing the Coalition run full term.
Over one in three, 35 per cent, believe we will see an election before March 2016 (unsurprisingly higher among Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein supporters), with many (29 per cent) still sitting on the fence ('It depends/don't know').
In terms of whether Labour should pull the plug on the Coalition, one in three says it should (with support for this option higher among Labour's perceived traditional heartland (C2DEs – blue-collar workers or those on State benefits).
Those most strident in their view that Labour should remain within the tent are more likely to be ABs (the higher professional classes). Come the next election it will be interesting to see to whom Labour pitches its manifesto. Even among its own supporters, backing to remain in Government is steady, but not overwhelming (64 per cent).
It is apparent that the last two years have seen Labour back itself into a corner. Now is the time to see if it has the wherewithal, or desire, to come out fighting.
Paul Moran is an associate director with Millward Brown