For all the brickbats slung at Coalition, the public seem to still favour the devil they know, writes Jody Corcoran
Headline figures as to the relative popularity of a political party at a given moment in time are one thing, but the hard-headed business of voting for a government is something else. And after that, the messy business of government formation is something else again.
This inaugural Sunday Independent/Ireland Thinks opinion poll may prove to be something of a landmark — not to mention a reality check for those running away with the notion that Sinn Féin is a shoo-in to lead the next government.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald recently said she had been around long enough to realise the current popularity of her party, three years out from an election, while pleasing to her, could not be taken for granted — nor should it be taken as read that she will be the next Taoiseach. This poll confirms as much.
Sinn Féin may be the most popular political party in the country at the moment, and the poll confirms its standing in other recent surveys, which have seen the party approaching twice the levels of support of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael combined.
That said, Sinn Féin’s 10-point lead over Fine Gael in this poll is a lot less daunting for Leo Varadkar’s party, and even for Fianna Fáil, than a 15-point lead over both.
There are other comforts for the government parties in the poll.
Look closely and an underlying — some would say begrudging — satisfaction with its performance can be detected, perhaps informed by its relatively assured handling of the spread of Omicron for one, and by last week’s encouraging news on the economy for another.
However, polling of opinion on the relative popularity of a political party is, inherently, a reflection of a snapshot in time — as former Labour leader Eamon Gilmore could remind us.
He promised to blow a gale three years before the 2011 election, with his party polling at the levels Sinn Féin is at now, only to limp in well behind Fine Gael when it mattered, to make up the numbers in a government, its participation in which Labour has yet to recover from.
Sinn Féin’s current level of support may yet prove to be more solid. Indeed, there is every reason to believe the party will maintain and even improve on its performance in its last breakthrough election, after which it was elevated to the position of leader of the opposition.
Since then, the party has improved its position again, according to all the opinion polls, this one included.
It would be difficult not to. Mid-cycle, at a depressing time, opposition parties tend to find favour with the public, and populist ones even more so; ones that are destructive in opposition, as Micheál Martin recently put it, even more so again.
But eventually we will get down to the hard-headed business of electing a new government, and therein lies the first problem for Sinn Féin and Mary Lou McDonald, as borne out by this poll.
For all the slings and arrows directed at the incumbent Government, the public still favours the Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael/Greens coal-ition (38pc) over the alternative in the Dáil — that is, a Sinn Féin-led government of the Left including the Greens (34pc).
Exclude the Greens and such a Sinn Féin-led Left alternative would struggle to command the support of a third of the electorate.
The corollary is also true: the current Government also fails to command majority support to form a new administration, according to these figures. Add in Alan Kelly’s Labour, however, and/or a few Independents, and it would be closer to getting over the line.
What this poll tells us is what some have been predicting for some time — that the messy business of government formation next time around may be messier than ever. Or not, depending on events over the next three years.
What is more evident than ever, however, is that Sinn Féin’s path to power remains unclear. Mary Lou McDonald’s embrace of former Fianna Fáil Taoiseach Bertie Ahern at a funeral in Dublin last week has led some to speculate that it foretells the next administration.
But this poll reveals limited support, at 10pc, for such a coalition, which may tell us more about residual antipathy within Fianna Fáil toward Fine Gael in the centenary week of the Big Falling Out than anything else.
Now to those other comforts for the government parties — what some might call straws in the wind.
In a week of record exchequer returns, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe (40pc) is the preferred minister for finance ahead of Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty (36pc). Fianna Fáil’s Michael McGrath, who will take the position this time next year, is some way behind on 15pc.
When eventually it comes to the hard-headed business of electing a government, Jim Carville’s 1992 phrase “It’s the economy, stupid” may prove more relevant than ever. Or will the issue be housing again?
Sinn Féin’s self-styled guru Eoin Ó Broin is comfortably the public’s favourite to be housing minister (44pc). Yet for all his positive contributions and media coverage, he fails to command majority support.
Ó Broin is some way ahead of Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien, who, despite all the criticism of his housing policy, still commands a respectable 33pc support. A more telling finding on this question is that almost a quarter (23pc) are unsure, perhaps prepared to await the outcome of recent housing initiatives over the next three years.
A potentially more interesting finding again is that Fine Gael’s Helen McEntee (41pc) commands twice the support of Sinn Féin’s Martin Kenny (21pc) as the next justice minister, with Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan (17pc) bringing up the rear — maybe rueing the day he turned down a position in that office offered by Micheál Martin.
Mary Lou McDonald, meanwhile, remains the most popular party leader — but only just. That and the strong standing of Sinn Féin in this poll will continue to blow a gale into her sails. Now all she has to do is figure out a path to power.
And that, as she knows herself, will be easier said than done.