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Jody Corcoran: Unlikely as it may seem, Fianna Fail is the only credible alternative

Standard questions can elicit standard answers. To the standard question, then, the answer is that Fianna Fail is toxic, that its future is behind it and that it is now experiencing a lingering death, painful to the Dev Og touch.

When the party gathered in Dublin this weekend, the most diehard supporter found it hard to disagree, even if, in the nature of these things, the Ard Fheis served to buoy them somewhat.

Other opinion polls tell us that Fianna Fail still hovers in or around the mid-to-high teens in terms of "popularity", a dramatic fall from the heady days when it routinely commanded the support of a third of the electorate.

Today's Sunday Independent/Millward Brown Lansdowne poll did not ask the standard questions. Rather, we sought to test the substance of what Micheal Martin told the Ard Fheis on Friday night: "The only place where a credible alternative approach to this Government can come is from Fianna Fail," he said.

That may sound like a throwaway sound bite for the party faithful, and in many ways it was, but our poll finds that the electorate remains cautious to a more radical alternative, or more particularly, to the Fine Gael wing of the current coalition.

Fianna Fail is still in the game, therefore -- which is not to say that all is forgiven.

When asked who is to blame for the state of the economy, 39 per cent said the previous government of Fianna Fail/Greens, four points more than the banks (35 per cent).

These two, above all others, are primarily held responsible: the previous financial regulator (eight per cent); property developers (seven per cent); the present Government (four per cent); foreign banks (four per cent) and ourselves (three per cent) are significantly less held to account.

But yet over a third (36 per cent) would like to see Fianna Fail recover to become a realistic alternative party of government again, that is, in or around the same percentage of the electorate which, not that long ago, so routinely placed a tick alongside a candidate of the party.

The finding is significant for many reasons, not least that it may go some way towards disproving the theory that it has gone away, you know, to misquote the Sinn President Gerry Adams in another context.

The reference is relevant. Sinn Fein is flying high in other polls at the moment, or so it would seem, when the standard question is asked. But now examine our poll...

Less than a quarter (23 per cent) would like to see Sinn Fein in government; a massive 61 per cent would not like to see Sinn Fein in government; almost half (49 per cent) would "strongly" dislike to see them in government.

Although 40 per cent would not like to see a resurgent Fianna Fail -- 28 per cent are "strongly" of that view -- the point is made: when it comes to huffing and puffing and giving out, Sinn Fein is fine in opposition; when it comes to choosing a government from the opposition, Fianna Fail is preferred.

As Sinn Fein plots its strategy, therefore, which is to be in government by 2016, it would do well to bear in mind that the support it may seem to be drawing is soft, soft as the underbelly of a fish, too soft to rely upon.

A breakdown of the figures is even more instructive. This weekend, at the RDS, many of the pundits have suggested that the support base of Fianna Fail is aged, in the over-65 age group, perhaps, or not far off. But in our poll, those who would like to see a resurgent Fianna Fail are drawn from all age groups: more than a third (33 per cent) are over 65, but 35 per cent and 36 per cent of those aged 25-35 and 35-49 respectively also agree that a fit-for-purpose Fianna Fail is desirable.

Similarly, and somewhat surprisingly, the desire is also strong across the urban (35 per cent) and rural (37 per cent) divide, and in terms of social class, is particularly strong among those classed AB (43 per cent).

Predictably, Sinn Fein scores strongest in the 18-24 age group (29 per cent) in terms of those who would like to see the party in government; but now ask their parents (23 per cent) and grandparents (18 per cent), who still have no truck with the political wing of the Provisional IRA.

The Independents, meanwhile, are proving to be a little disappointing. Asked if those who voted for Independent TDs are being represented effectively, just a third (29 per cent) agree while 43 per cent disagree.

In terms of the opposition, however, the real finding is that Fianna Fail is not done for yet; more than that, it has everything to play for, perhaps now more than ever that Micheal Martin has finally taken a grip of the party.

His former deputy leader, Eamon O Cuiv, may have more in common with Sinn Fein on the issue of the day, republican-laced euroscepticism, but will do well to remember that when it comes to the formation of government, the people know who they want and who they do not want.

Sunday Independent