Friday 22 November 2019

Leaked poll exposes FG's general election anxieties

The full extent of Leo Varadkar's concern over controversial issues was revealed, says Jody Corcoran

Homelessness champion: Fr Peter McVerry. Photo: Frank McGrath
Homelessness champion: Fr Peter McVerry. Photo: Frank McGrath

The Fine Gael opinion poll reported by this newspaper last weekend asked 18 detailed questions in total, only five of which referred to election slogans. The others highlighted controversial issues which could well reflect badly on that party in a general election.

As such, the leaking of the bi-annual poll circulated online to at least 1,000 people was far from an "exercise in political spin" as has been lazily assumed by one commentator with no knowledge at all as to how the questions came into the possession of the Sunday Independent.

The slogan questions - 'Let Leo lead on', 'Prudence over promises' etc - were certainly the more colourful aspects of the poll and, therefore, featured prominently last weekend; but the so-called "Fine Gael strategists" incorrectly said to be behind the leak would be uncomfortable indeed at the disclosure of the vast majority of the questions which underline perceived shortcomings in Government policy, highlight anxieties in Fine Gael as a result, and expose rather than facilitate political 'spin' widely associated with that party in advance of an election.

In fact, these further questions, which seek to gauge public opinion on an array of hot topics, lay out the ground on which the next election will be fought and are, therefore, hugely newsworthy.

Deep breath. Here are some of the issues on which Fine Gael privately polled: balanced regional development; increasing people's living standards; protecting and reassuring women affected by health service screening issues; increasing the supply of affordable homes; reducing hospital waiting lists; crime and anti-social behaviour; improving the affordability of renting; controlling the costs of insurance; and delivering an education system not controlled by the church.

A further deep breath: providing more housing, particularly on State-owned land; providing support for families; standing up for rural Ireland; ensuring Ireland maintains a rainy-day fund to protect against future set-backs; protecting the weakest in society; championing gender equality, reducing the tax burden; and tackling climate change.

Indeed, the full list of questions is entirely newsworthy as any political journalist, as opposed to, for example, a fat-cat lawyer, should realise, and for this reason among others: it will frame Fine Gael's election manifesto in due course, and, therefore, will also be of interest to political rivals, not to mention the general public.

This was not lost on Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin, who referred to the leaked questions at a Brexit briefing at the Institute of International and European Affairs in Dublin, during which he described the thinking behind the poll as "grossly cynical".

Martin was referring to break-out analysis of the poll questions in this newspaper last weekend, which confirmed a previous, and exclusive, news report in the Sunday Independent some months ago that Leo Varadkar was considering using the Government's handling of the Brexit negotiations to seek a strengthened Fine Gael mandate in an election.

Lest there be doubt, further Fine Gael poll questions on Brexit illustrate the point. These questions gauge public opinion on whether Ireland should negotiate its own deal with the UK now; whether there has been too much focus on Northern Ireland in the Brexit negotiations, and not enough on trade and business links with the rest of the UK; whether we should "move towards a United Ireland, if this made sense" following a Brexit deal; and whether Brexit will end up with a hard border with Northern Ireland, or whether the Government should insist the EU halts negotiations with the UK if no progress is made on the border issue. There is also a question on whether the public is concerned that the Government's so-called 'rock solid', 'cast-iron' and 'bullet- proof' backstop deal agreed on the border and customs control will not be enforced.

Rather than this newspaper being party to 'spin', the reporting of these questions exposes, to a significant extent, the level of concern, indeed doubts, at the heart of Government as to how Brexit will work out and, indeed, whether its own negotiating strategy is properly focused at all; and, as such, should not be misleadingly dismissed in The Irish Times as something so-called "Fine Gael strategists" would want to leak.

The general level of Fine Gael anxiety as to how the party is perceived by the public does not end with Brexit, although that is clearly the election ground being marked out, as is also shown by another question, which posits: "Our negotiating team, led by Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney, is a strong team to represent Ireland in Brexit talks and will get the best deal."

No, the standalone questions, which reveal Fine Gael's anxiety, are on the two hot issues of the day - health and housing.

Here is a summary of those questions: on housing, it seeks to gauge the level of public "concern" on the number of people currently homeless; rising house prices; the number of new properties being built; difficulty in acquiring mortgages due to strict criteria; the shortage of social and affordable housing, general availability of housing and rental cost and affordability due to lack of supply.

And the poll asks whether the health service needs a "radical overhaul" to stop the waste of money on bureaucracy; whether we still have far too many people lying on hospital trolleys; whether people would like to see the Government use more private hospitals to ease the waiting lists; whether the "power of the unions" and those with a "vested interest" in the health service means real improvements will "always" be difficult; and, to further gauge possible underlying apathy, whether people believe the problems with the health service will not be fixed in 'my lifetime'.

If anything, the disclosure of these questions, rather than showing us to be either naive, or subject, or party to 'spin', actually shows Fine Gael to be anxious about the issues which have emerged on its watch, on which the election will be won and lost and, to an extent, shows how that party is "cynically" polling opinion to formulate its election campaign in response.

There are other questions too, softer ones, designed to assess opinion on the perception of each political party leader: 'Intelligent', 'caring', 'arrogant', 'honest', 'likeable', 'gets things done' and others besides that as well.

And another which shows Fine Gael gauging opinion on whether the public believe the party works hard on the ground; stands for opportunity for all; is willing to "take tough decisions" for the long term; has a plan for Ireland's future development; provides support for struggling families and "stands with the ordinary people of Ireland" no less.

But primarily, the poll has been crafted to ascertain the level of public opinion on Brexit, and to divine perceived differences between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail in relation to the running of the economy in the event that confidence and supply is not extended - the implication being that Fine Gael 'has a plan', is 'managing the economy effectively, avoiding the mistakes of the past', and offers 'prudence over promises'.

The point is our reporting of the questions was not an 'exercise in political spin brilliantly executed by Fine Gael strategists' as claimed in The Irish Times on the back of just one question related to a political leader who was in power more than 55 years ago, and about whom at least half the electorate know little or nothing. What a joke.

Sunday Independent

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