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Friday 17 November 2017

Abortion row fails to quell tide of apathy

Support for party leaders drops as mid-term disillusionment rises


THE latest Sunday Independent/Millward Brown poll, conducted in the second half of May, throws up some interesting shifts in public opinion – both in terms of political standings and, more intriguingly, the ongoing abortion debate. In essence, there is something for nearly everyone in this latest snapshot.

From a political point of view, Fine Gael will be pleased with a four-point shift in its favour, resulting in the party returning its highest endorsement so far in our tracking polls. Fianna Fail can also take solace, as it remains jointly top of the pile.

For all other parties it is more or less as you were, with no real meaningful shifts in support. Of course, the elephant in the room is the continuing swathe of undecideds, reflecting mid-term apathy and disillusionment with the policies of all parties.

Satisfaction with the Government continues to bump along in a similar vein, and again fails to break the 20 per cent mark.

Looking at the main party leaders, all have suffered a drop in support more recently, and all register dissatisfaction ratings of more than 50 per cent. It is surely a concern that not one of those entrusted to lead the main parties can avoid an overall negative rating. Indeed, 30 per cent of the population expressed dissatisfaction with all our leaders. Reinforcing the sense of disillusionment, more than half (54pc) of undecided voters are unhappy with all of them.

Instead of focusing on supporters of the parties, let's examine the undecideds. One in three of the population falls into this group. They are more likely to be younger voters (half, or 51pc, of 18 to 24-year-olds are in this category).

However, that it is not to assume that they are alone – of those traditionally considered more in-tune with politics (those aged 45-plus), one in four does not know what way to turn. Similarly females are more likely to be hedging their bets, with 37pc of them uncommitted at this juncture.

A sizeable minority (40pc) of those on the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder (those in unskilled jobs or those reliant on State assistance), or those living in Leinster (40pc) or Connacht/Ulster (36pc) are more likely to be unsure. It would seem that for many of these groups, both the current administration and the alternatives on offer are equally distasteful.

There has been a noticeable shift more recently in the public mood on that most thorny of issues – abortion. Both sides of the debate can draw solace from these results. When asked whether abortion is acceptable in certain "distress" scenarios, the public support for acceptability has softened

There has been a three point decrease in the acceptability of abortion as a result of rape (down to 68pc), a nine point fall where there is a threat to the mother's life other than suicide (down to 69pc), and a five point reduction where there is a long-term threat to the mother's life (which now stands at 64pc). In all of the above cases, there has been a notable increase of those stating that, notwithstanding the scenario, abortion is unacceptable.

These results suggest that views are becoming more polarised.

In addition, the intensity of emotion in the aftermath of the Savita Halappanavar tragedy has worn off for some, as legislative concerns become more prominent. The most pressing issue at hand, support for abortion where there is the threat of a mother's suicide, has remained steady at 53pc but we have seen the gradual increase in the numbers of those opposing such a development.

While these results may invigorate the pro-life side of the argument, the fact remains that in all distress situations put to the electorate, there is nonetheless a majority agreement that abortion is acceptable.

The one area where there is a rebuttal of abortion is in the situation where it is decided upon for "other reasons".

Just three in 10 would support such a move, illustrating that we are pragmatic in our opinions, but are not prepared to cross that particular Rubicon. Looking at who is driving these results, there is – as one would expect – particular cohorts that are more forthright in their views.

Those consistently more in favour of introducing legislation are younger (driven by those aged 25-34), and living in Dublin or along the eastern seaboard (Leinster). Those more likely to be opposed are older (especially those aged 65+) and living in Connacht/Ulster or Munster.

It seems the traditional liberal versus conservative argument is alive and well.

It is significant to note the views of the cohort most likely to be affected by these choices – females of a child-bearing age (18-44). In all distress circumstances put to them, they are more vociferous in their support for abortion. Similarly they are also more likely to feel that abortion is acceptable when the mother decides for other reasons.

A lot of political posturing has surrounded this issue, and many viewpoints have been put forward. Looking at it from the perspective of party support, several dynamics are striking. Labour supporters are the most consistent on this most divisive of topics, and are more in favour of abortion in all distress scenarios. It is ironic to see such discipline in following the party line, which makes a change from their more recent propensity for party in-fighting.

Micheal Martin's decision last Thursday to allow for a free vote may have been considered an astute move for Fianna Fail, both within and outside the parliamentary party. Fianna Fail supporters are consistently more vocal in expressing their disapproval for abortion, reflecting the party's key heartlands (older, more likely to be based in Connacht/Ulster and rural).

However, for some, his decision to do so (particularly as a party leader endorsing the legislation) felt more like political cowardice than pragmatism. The largest group (46pc) within his party support is still in favour of some legislation where there is a risk of suicide.

The argument put forward by some is that Fine Gael has suffered in recent polls as a result of their pre-election U-turn on legislating for the X case. However, all of our recent metrics suggest it is economic issues that are weighing down the party. That said, the upcoming abortion legislation will certainly have the potential to alienate some within the party. As it stands, the suicide option has the support of both FG supporters (albeit slim at 51 per cent), and the public as a whole.

The Taoiseach will need to show strong leadership in facing down internal divisions.

The "Nuremberg" argument by a leading Vatican official was unhelpful to his cause, and he will need to hold his nerve if he wants this legislation to be implemented without sustaining longer term damage to himself or his party.

Paul Moran is an Associate Director with Millward Brown

Irish Independent

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