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James Downey: Voters put aside concerns about Kenny as leader

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Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin gives a rose to his cousin Sheila Martin as he went on a walkabout with John O'Donoghue in Killarney at the weekend

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin gives a rose to his cousin Sheila Martin as he went on a walkabout with John O'Donoghue in Killarney at the weekend

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin gives a rose to his cousin Sheila Martin as he went on a walkabout with John O'Donoghue in Killarney at the weekend

ALL through last week, the feeling was in the air. It may have derived from opinion polls, from doorstep experiences, from constituency assessments or mere guesswork and personal prejudice. Wherever it came from, it was everywhere. Fine Gael was on course to win well.

Then came the 'Sunday Business Post' Red C opinion poll to confirm the intangible feeling.

A rating of 38pc for Fine Gael has changed the game. If yesterday's figure indicates a firm trend, and if that trend continues between now and polling day on February 25, the party will not just win but will have a serious chance of forming a single-party government -- though not necessarily a majority government.

Another couple of opinion polls will probably settle the question. In the meantime, the boost for the most popular party will be enormous. Figures like these put new heart into campaigners and discourage their rivals. People like to think of themselves as noble and selfless, but everyone loves a winner.

There is, as always, a downside. Party organisers will be warning their followers of the dangers of celebrating a victory not yet won. They will also be reassessing their own views of events so far in the election campaign, especially those relevant to their own party leader.

Enda Kenny's critics complained that he spent much of his time lately "in hiding". If so, it has done his party no harm. He was also criticised for refusing to take part in a television debate with Eamon Gilmore and Micheal Martin. It may have done Gilmore a little harm and Martin a little good (though none at all to judge by this poll). Kenny sails on.

Do these debates matter? We will have a better idea when the remainder take place. But right now a fairly safe prediction is that their chief effect will be to make viewers chide themselves for wasting their time.

For anyone who likes to venture on to less safe ground, a deeper question arises. Are we watching the Irish middle classes in the process of making up their minds and arriving at a decision of historic dimensions?

The evidence is there. They rejected Fianna Fail long ago. They have flirted with Labour, but it may be no more than a flirtation. Now they evidently have put aside their reservations about Enda Kenny, along with any reservations about Fine Gael as a "right-wing" party.

In any democratic country, it is essentially the urban middle classes who decide elections. Their concerns are always the same, and among the foremost is a desire for stable government. But this time, something more may lie beneath.

In the present economic collapse, the middle-class losses have been enormous: in relative terms, much greater than those of the rich. And they have lost much more than income or accumulated wealth. They have lost a huge chunk of their hopes and aspirations -- for themselves, their families and their country.

Nothing causes more despair than the kind of emigration we endure at present. It cannot be compared with any previous surge, even that of the 1980s, because the present emigrants are far better educated, of far higher potential value to our society.

Fine Gael can't cure that. Tragically, nobody can. But the prospect of a Fine Gael government holds out the possibility of some equilibrium, some foundation. That has to appeal to people who have had to lower their expectations so drastically.

And one can go deeper still. Through all the barren decades, Fine Gael never entirely ceded to Fianna Fail the status "natural party of government". Has the wheel turned?

At the very least, this election campaign, which started so flatly, has now brought different and exciting possibilities.

Irish Independent