John Downing: Fianna Fail's poll surge may force coalition to ease up on the hardship
MEET Taoiseach Micheal Martin and Tanaiste Gerry Adams. This could very well be a case of 'deja vu – all over again'. But with a Sinn Fein twist in the tale this time.
"The traditional role of coalition governments is to clean up after Fianna Fail governments. It may well be the case again. I don't know."
That was a comment from none other than Enda Kenny on 'The Late Late Show' on January 16, 1982. There have been many twists on the road of politics in the 31 years since then. But the latest opinion poll tells us definitively that Fianna Fail has resurrected itself and is the nation's most popular political party. Fine Gael is struggling and Labour's fate does not look good as its support has been halved.
Sinn Fein is – yet again – rated as scoring twice what they did in the general election on February 25, 2011. The MillwardBrown survey for the 'Sunday Independent', published yesterday, tells us that, if the election was held tomorrow, we would have a Fianna Fail-Sinn Fein government with perhaps as many as six Sinn Fein people in senior cabinet positions.
Right enough, Mr Martin has responded to the survey findings with a major broadside against Sinn Fein. Never, never, never, he says, to a Fianna Fail-Sinn Fein tie up. But let's recall that we are talking politics here.
With 166 TDs, it used to be a game of 83-plus to get your mitts on the levers of power. Next time, there will be 158 Dail seats. That will make it a game of 79-plus. Right up to polling day, leaders of all parties can swear holes in iron buckets about who they could or could not do business with in the future. But there is an easy formula for extricating themselves from their previous assertions once the votes are counted.
"The people have spoken. We must make a government with this election result. The people will not thank us for doing otherwise." As political alibis go, that one is hard to beat.
This Fianna Fail versus Sinn Fein tussle has been an interesting subset of the various inter-party rivalries that have been going on since the last general election. It was also interesting to note that Fianna Fail dissident Eamon O Cuiv had not entirely given up the idea of a Sinn Fein coalition last week when he spoke to the Irish language newspaper, 'Gaelsceal'.
It may not be pretty, or always entirely justified, but Sinn Fein has revelled in reminding everyone that the economy was totally smashed into pieces on Fianna Fail's watch.
Sinn Fein's role is clear. The Government sits opposite and we kick them and kick them at every opportunity. Mr Martin was a Bertie Ahern lieutenant from the time of that man's election as party leader in November 1994, and he held a range of senior government posts from June 1997 until late January 2011. Mr Martin has to choose his grounds for opposition with a great deal more care.
But Mr Martin is an excellent politician, and history will show that. He is one of the reasons why Fianna Fail is back in business. He is also flanked by many people of merit like Billy Kelleher, Michael McGrath, and many others less noticed, including Senators Thomas Byrne and Averil Power.
It is clear that Fianna Fail has done its business well. It is also clear that just about everything bad that could have happened to Fianna Fail did happen to it in the run-up to the general election two years ago. Fianna Fail actually got a worse kicking in February 2011 than the old Irish Parliamentary Party got in the November 1918 general election, which consigned them to oblivion.
Only proportional representation saved the Fianna Fail brand from extinction last time. And it also knows the road ahead is long and hard. It got 17pc in the last election and surveys show it is now on 27pc.
This is some way away from the 40pc threshold where it usually lived when Bertie Ahern led them to three general election victories in a row.
So is Fine Gael to reflect that it is progressing with the post-Fianna Fail clean-up action and now it is looking at the door? Is Labour's situation terminal?
Yesterday's Sunday Independent opinion poll is not encouraging for either government party. A poll last week with similar results was carried out before the Government's great achievement on the Anglo Irish Bank debt deal with the European Central Bank. The deal was well known when survey respondents were speaking to the latest poll.
The findings will likely galvanise both Fine Gael and Labour into signalling some kind of "citizens' dividend" very soon on the back of the ECB-Anglo arrangement. Labour, through Social Protection Minister Joan Burton and Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin, have been pushing this one. Fine Gael has been striking a more cautious note.
But both parties have to fight the local and European Parliament elections in just 16 months' time, in June 2014. It will concentrate minds in the government parties, as those contests will be a great indicator of their political health and their prospects in a general election due in spring 2016.