Tuesday 27 September 2016

Stagnant opinion polls more proof that we need a dramatically reformed system

Published 25/09/2015 | 02:30

'The shifts in opinion are minimal. Nothing more exciting than
'The shifts in opinion are minimal. Nothing more exciting than "Fine Gael up a bit, Sinn Féin down a bit". None of them helps us to make a credible forecast of the general election result apart from the blindingly obvious: a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil coalition will be in a position to form a government, just possibly a majority government. And we knew that all along'

You can pick up the latest opinion poll findings, turn them round, peer at every item, make comparisons with previous surveys, and you will still come to the same conclusion.

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The shifts in opinion are minimal. Nothing more exciting than "Fine Gael up a bit, Sinn Féin down a bit". None of them helps us to make a credible forecast of the general election result apart from the blindingly obvious: a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil coalition will be in a position to form a government, just possibly a majority government. And we knew that all along.

How can this be the case when we are wallowing (or so the Government tells us) in a marvellous economic recovery, the envy of poor old souls in countries like Germany? You can find the answer by switching on one of Vincent Browne's TV3 debates. The extent of the anger and contempt expressed by the participants is extraordinary. Besides, they are based on intimate and fluently expressed knowledge of the facts.

Government supporters have no chance of prevailing when the people in the audience compete in describing grievances like the withdrawal of services or their difficulties in buying school uniforms for their children. They typically concentrate on the local and the personal without addressing some important events which cast doubt on the very word "recovery".

The Web Summit will shortly move from Dublin to Lisbon. We will lose a trophy of which we have loved to boast.

We might not have taken much notice if the new venue had been in, say, the United States or Sweden. But Portugal? A much poorer country than Ireland, with a history of poverty and maladministration?

In point of fact, history moved on a long time ago. Portugal has a motorway system ranked first in Europe and second in the world. It was planned and initiated decades before Ireland started building motorways at a rate (and I'm not joking) of one or two miles at a time.

And just as the Web Summit organisers were giving Lisbon's better infrastructure as the reason for the move, we were engaged in postponing, yet again, the plan for a rail tunnel in Dublin. The tunnel, if it's ever built, will cost €3bn, double the amount Brendan Howlin plans to hand out in the Budget next month.

I will make two predictions about that Budget.

People on middle incomes (in reality, upper-middle incomes) will get decent tax cuts. The purpose, of course, will be to firm up, in advance of the general election, the existing Fine Gael support and attract waverers. In all probability, the tactic will work.

But Mr Howlin has to act within a very strict limit, €1.5bn at most. The voters want more - much more. We can expect strenuous and ingenious attempts to take some money off the balance sheet. There may be miscalculations, and they could be costly.

In the heel of the hunt, large numbers may vote for Fine Gael, not because of electoral bribes but because Fine Gael is their natural home - and also because they have so little in the way of alternatives.

The independent candidates are the jokers in the pack. This poll shows that their support has held up well at a time when many had forecast the beginning of a decline. But their chances are impossible to assess. Many independents have a special appeal to particular groups in their constituencies, far removed from the outside world.

Regardless of their merits, some of them may "make up the numbers" in December or March or whenever the time comes for real decisions. If so, will that do any good?

It might do some good if they had policies of their own and sufficient clout to insist on legislating for them. Sadly, however, that is improbable. They would be much more likely to form nothing more than a tail to the kite of a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil coalition characterised by a lethal mixture of arrogance and laziness.

I would be much happier if I thought any gap might be filled by the Social Democrats or Renua, or both. But neither of these has much chance of attaining anything remotely resembling "critical mass" in the lifetime of a Dáil term - or, on present form, in a human lifetime.

But the present is still a good time to imagine, if no more than imagine, better things.

Right now, Irish politics presents a picture more of stagnation than recovery. But that may be misleading.

We live in an age of turbulence. The world financial system continues to languish in a condition approaching chaos. The European Union is in danger of breaking up. The refugee crisis, in view of Europe's failure to find anything like a solution, appears unmanageable. Pope Francis, meanwhile, demands action on climate change and inequality. People have begun to listen to him.

The Irish political system is singularly ill-fitted to play a constructive role in any of the difficulties that face us. It can barely manage its own inadequate agenda.

We desperately need a dramatically reformed system. But the opinion polls give us not the slightest hint of such a development. Indeed, the question hardly figures in what passes for political discourse. Until it comes to solid policy and intelligent action, we are stuck at the level of two points up, one point down, in the opinion polls.

Irish Independent

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