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James Downey: FG closing in on stunning victory as rivals fall away

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OPINION polls cannot tell us the result of the general election next week, but today's Irish Independent-Millward Brown Lansdowne survey comes close. A study of its findings, and analysis of the scenarios that could arise from them, narrow the possibilities almost to zero.

The crucial figure is the support expressed for Fine Gael. This stands at 38pc, a striking increase on the 30pc in the last Irish Independent poll published two weeks ago. A rise of such magnitude in such a short time is dramatic and buttresses all the other evidence of a swing to Fine Gael since the beginning of the election campaign.

It is dangerous to make comparisons between polls conducted by different companies, since they use varying methodologies. However, on this occasion it seems fair to note that 38pc is exactly the same figure as that arrived at by the latest Red C survey. The evidence of a trend is overwhelming.

It could be halted, though probably not reversed, by some event of earthquake proportions. But that appears most improbable, and on any reasonable conclusion the trend should strengthen instead of weaken.

Interviewing for the poll was conducted before the five-way leaders' debate on Monday night, and was therefore unaffected by public views of who won, lost or drew the debate.

In advance of the event, attention centred on the likely performance of the Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny. He had fumbled on television in the past, looked uncertain and got his figures mixed up.

This time, the party handlers need not have worried. His self-confidence brimmed over. His manner bordered on the imperious. He spoke like someone who considered himself on the way to the Taoiseach's chair.

The content matched the manner. It featured the old-fashioned virtues on which his party once prided itself but from which politicians usually shy away. When asked who would suffer in the coming years from the effects of the economic crisis, he said "everybody" and made no attempt to exclude sections of the population.

A poll conducted after the debate instead of before it might well have given his party a higher rating. That is on the assumption that Irish voters, out of desperation, have developed a taste for straight talking. If this is indeed the case, the election result is simply not in doubt.

But Fine Gael still has challengers, the chief of which might still end up as partners instead of opponents.

Historically speaking, the Labour Party's current rating of 23pc is terrific. It implies that the party could win a figure approaching 40 seats in the incoming Dail. But so far the party has not really had a good campaign.

At the beginning, everybody assumed that the likeliest outcome would be a Fine Gael-Labour coalition. The parties were close in the opinion polls -- occasionally with Labour ahead of Fine Gael -- and the Labour leader, Eamon Gilmore, was far ahead of Kenny in popularity.

But Labour made a mistake with its "Gilmore for Taoiseach" posters. Voters think, rightly, that they lack credibility. Gilmore himself has not lived up to his reputation as one of the smoothest orators in Irish politics. His television performances have been far below his best. And this goes hand in hand with his saddling himself, unnecessarily, with a policy problem.

In his earlier debate with the Fianna Fail leader, Micheal Martin, he lost out on the issue of extending the four-year "national recovery plan". On Monday night he was doing well until, amazingly, he got himself embroiled in a shouting match with Kenny on virtually the same issue. His handlers could have told him to pick something the viewers could at least understand.

There has now arisen the distinct possibility that Labour, far from leading a government, could instead lead the opposition in the new Dail. That might not be the worst thing that could happen to the party, but politics is about power and politicians rightly lament when power slips away.

Another real possibility is that Fine Gael, with such a tremendous wind at its back, will continue to extend its lead. On its present rating, single-party government is almost within its grasp. A very few more percentage points would bring the bigger prize of a Dail majority, with Fine Gael ruling on its own.

And perhaps this is what the voters really want -- or will want by the time they go to the polls on February 25.

What could be more natural than that, in terrible times, people should seek strong government and look to the only party that promises it?

All through this campaign, Fianna Fail has choked on a steady diet of bad news. In the present poll, the news gets worse. The party's support stands at a wretched 12pc. At such a level, it is within the bounds of possibility that it might not win a single seat in the 31st Dail. In the real world, of course, that simply will not happen. But two conclusions are inevitable.

First, there is no "Martin bounce" and it is massively unlikely that any will develop. Of his two apparent assets, only one is real: he speaks well. The other -- novelty -- has no credibility. The impact of his shiny new "front bench" did not last for 24 hours. His efforts to present a fresh image for Fianna Fail and himself have been ruined by the simple fact that he sat for 14 years in the Ahern and Cowen cabinets.

Nine years after a disastrous election result, Fine Gael is close to a stunning victory.

On the present evidence, Fianna Fail will spend the next nine years fighting for survival, and not certain of winning.

Irish Independent