The big question in Irish politics is how Sinn Féin has become so strong? And why have attempts to stem its rise been so unsuccessful? The answer to these questions requires a nuanced understanding of the emergence of the Irish brand of populism, something our poll today highlights in Technicolor.
Rival parties often highlight Sinn Féin’s connection to past atrocities with a view to dissuading supposedly naive young voters. Such a strategy has failed to have any impact. This is because support for the party has relatively little to do with Sinn Féin itself. Indeed, when its voters are asked why they vote for their party of choice, their most common explanation is their opposition to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.
So, what is it about Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael?
At the last general election the UCD/Ireland Thinks exit poll found the feature that best differentiated Sinn Féin supporters from Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael supporters was their perception of corruption in politics. The fact this differential was so much stronger than age, social class, or attitudes toward a united Ireland was quite puzzling. But our poll today reveals even more about this dynamic.
Respondents were asked about the prosecution of hoteliers and politicians involved in organising the ‘Golfgate’ dinner: 70pc said it was fair to prosecute, 22pc said it was unfair. Of that 22pc, the vast majority (72pc) support Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael.
Similarly, respondents were asked their views on the controversial UN Security Council celebrations in the Department of Foreign Affairs: 62pc felt there should be repercussions, 29pc did not. Of the 29pc, again the vast majority (69pc) support either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael.
These differences could be attributed to partisanship due to the involvement of senior government ministers. However, when we asked a general question about society and whether it is dictated by meritocratic norms or otherwise, the divergence is clear again.
In that question, 66pc of the public believe it is more “who you know than what you know” and just 9pc believe it is more about “what you know than who you know”, with the remainder stating that it’s both evenly or they are unsure. While 83pc of Sinn Féin voters believe that to “get ahead” is more about who you know, this falls to 46pc for the two lead government parties.
What should be apparent is Sinn Féin’s vote stacks up on the side where the majority is. This is an enormous advantage for the party, meaning any time these events emerge (like the Katherine Zappone incident), Sinn Féin stands to benefit from tapping into the reservoir of populist sentiment in Ireland.
These are known as wedge issues for Sinn Féin. While the other parties will irritate half of their voters depending on what side of the argument they take, Sinn Féin is not going to be punished for taking the populist position on these issues.
So, politics has seen the emergence of two different narratives. One suggests Ireland is deeply corrupt with cronyism rife throughout society, the other suggests it is a modern meritocratic nation and successful in relative terms.
Of course, the truth probably lies somewhere in between but this is part of the political football that is emerging.
Populism is described by political scientists as a worldview that pits the “pure people” against a “corrupt elite”. In other European countries it has emerged specifically with right-wing parties and through the salience of immigration.
In Ireland this populism is reflected in wider attitudes on the key issues. In terms of the most important issues facing the country, “government corruption/incompetence” is ranked sixth in our list, above issues such as crime and drugs, jobs and growth and Northern Ireland/Brexit.
Housing is regarded as the most important issue in our list, cited by 44pc of the public as being in their top two. Populism is also evident on this issue, as our poll shows there is a large 89pc opposed to companies being able to accumulate thousands of properties.
The incapacity to address the housing crisis has had a tangible impact on support for the parties. The persistence of the crisis has severely damaged Fine Gael and this looks set to continue. Support for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael combined among renters is just 17pc.
Populism is also evident within healthcare, the second most important issue facing the country as cited by 33pc of the public. In the context of healthcare, 85pc do not believe public money is being managed appropriately in the HSE. This is a staggering figure which comes on the back of previous polls highlighting the level of dissatisfaction with executive pay in the civil service.
Understanding populism is the key to understanding Sinn Féin, but it can also be a blind spot for those charged with the task.
It is a truism that those who are the most optimistic about the political system are often working in the system, while those most pessimistic often don’t engage with the system at all, making it quite difficult for political operators to understand these concerns.
While the public typically have very low levels of trust in politicians, there is also very large support for making it illegal to protest at their homes.
To understand the rise of Sinn Féin and potentially meet the party head on, their rivals need to understand these nuances of Irish populism.
The opinion poll was conducted on Friday, January 7. The sample size for the poll is 1,369. Using innovative technology, the poll has the advantage of random sampling from a face-to-face poll together with the benefits of speed and privacy of smartphone SMS polling.
The initial panel was collated using Random Digit Dialling and propensity score matching. From over 30,000 panellists 4,000 were chosen to take part in this survey on the basis of their demographics and attitudes matched to targets based on the most recent exit poll, census and national election studies.
The responses are then weighted according to age, gender, region, education, religiosity, housing status and voting behaviour at the 2020 general election.
The poll typically has a response rate of one in three and a completion rate of 98pc. The method is in line with Pew Research Centre and the AAPOR’s evaluations of the most accurate methodologies for conducting public opinion polling.
The methodology is led by Dr Kevin Cunningham. Kevin studied Statistics at Oxford University and lectured in statistics at Technological University Dublin. He is a fellow of the Royal Statistical Society and member of the Market Research Society. He works on and off as a consultant on statistical methodology for three separate polling companies in the UK.
The methodology exceeds the standards set out by AIMRO, ESOMAR and the British Polling Council.