Friday 28 October 2016

Traumatised and cynical electorate makes this election a leap into the unknown

Gerard O’Regan

Published 06/02/2016 | 02:30

Enda Kenny and Joan Burton on the steps of Leinster House after the Dáil was dissolved. Photo: Twitter/ @CormacMcQuinn
Enda Kenny and Joan Burton on the steps of Leinster House after the Dáil was dissolved. Photo: Twitter/ @CormacMcQuinn

So what's the betting we will have a second general election before the year is out?

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The latest poll findings are the most foreboding for the Coalition partners so far. That symbolic goodbye between Enda and Joan on the steps of Leinster House this week may have had a finality about it which neither party leader intended.

For unless there is some dramatic turnaround during the campaign, Fine Gael and Labour simply won't have the numbers to form a government after the votes are counted. The prospect of a seriously fragmented Dáil now looks overwhelming. Yesterday, we had the Taoiseach ruling out any deal-making with Independents. If that is the case - and it is a very big if - his best hope will be to form some kind of minority administration. By definition, this would be dependent on the grace and favour of certain opposition TDs. In theory, it could work. In practice, it will be high risk - and prone to collapse sooner rather than later.

But regardless of what Mr Kenny says, if it is a case of needs must, he will try and do business with the more right-of-centre Independents, such as Shane Ross and Renua leader Lucinda Creighton. All those who suggest that the difficulties between Kenny and Creighton may be a barrier to such a deal need only to think back to the Charles Haughey and Des O'Malley era. They put mutual hatred to one side so they could form the Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrats coalition. Of course, Shane and Lucinda will want to be cabinet ministers as part of the price to be paid for their support - but that should not be a major problem if it will keep FG and Labour in power.

As the major outgoing party of government, Fine Gael was able to hit the ground running, and retain the initiative as early electioneering salvos got under way. But despite all its pre-election planning, it has stuttered over the last two days. Some of the facts and figures underpinning its plans for the economy were called into question. And doggedly rolling out the 'we've got to keep the recovery going' slogan is all very well. But it's going to get more than tedious as the ultimate fallback for any kind of sticky question.

Meanwhile, as the campaign gathers momentum, the main divide in the electorate will become more obvious. On one level, a broad swathe of the middle-income group wants to keep the current Government in office because they feel the alternative is simply too unappealing.

But the polls also show there is a vast coterie of voters who will not plump for Fine Gael or Labour under any circumstances. For them, the wounds of the recession years are still raw and festering. This group is providing the underlying momentum which is likely to return a record number of Independents.

The final result is going to be on a knife edge on various fronts and confident predictions in a range of constituencies are impossible.

Overall, there remains a huge unknown factor in the politics of post-recession Ireland, and the thin grey line between success and failure is set to make or break a record number of careers.

The tension and worry provoked by this do-or-die battle is already palpable on the faces of some of the main players. None more so than Labour leader Joan Burton. She knows that if the gods are really cruel, her party could face near wipeout. So she must desperately cling to the old adage, that regardless of national trends and fixations, each constituency is unique to itself.

Herein must lie the only hope for a Labour salvation, praying that a bounce of the ball here and there will just nudge some of its election hopefuls over the finishing line.

From Micheál Martin's perspective, there may be some glimmer of hope - if one digs into the nether regions of recent polling - that a feeling of forgiveness for the past sins of Fianna Fáil may be gaining ground. Given he is not going to get an overall majority, and the fact he has ruled out coalition with Sinn Féin or Fine Gael, his post-election position is already problematic. The risk of a heave against his leadership is a real possibility if long-term opposition is the future for his party.

Out on the left wing, there are ever-increasing signs that Sinn Féin will be more than happy to go into government with Fianna Fáil. It is all part of a ruthless graduated strategy to work on the party's image south of the border.

Post the crash, our political life was turned on its head. This election will chart new territory, reflecting an Ireland much of which is still traumatised, fearful, and cynical about politics and politicians. Last time out, the electorate did the unthinkable to Fianna Fáil. What have they got in mind for three weeks' time?

To paraphrase Sean O'Casey: Things are in a state of chassis - a terrible state of chassis.

Irish Independent

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