The old cliche that "there is only one poll that matters" is not really true. This paper's poll is important. It is the first in-depth, comprehensive survey of voting intentions and political attitudes in the 2011 General Election campaign. It takes into account recent developments -- including the cabinet meltdown, the FF leadership contest, the Greens' exit from Government, and Gerry Adams's early woeful broadcasting performances as party leader.
This poll shows early evidence that the election will almost certainly produce an FG-Labour coalition with a large Dail majority. It also reflects a certain absence of enthusiasm for that result with a slight majority believing that FG and Labour are incompatible coalition partners. The signs are, nonetheless, that between them they will have between 95 and 105 seats. Their relative strength at the cabinet table will be decided by results in about 15 or 20 marginal constituencies, which in turn may hinge on the lower preferences of supporters of other parties and independents.
But it is important to look behind the national figures. In Dublin, the outgoing government parties are facing an electoral calamity. At 9 per cent in the capital, FF will be lucky to win a handful of Dublin seats. If they receive 15 per cent support nationally on election day, they might be lucky to reach a Dail strength of 30 TDs, mainly rural. This poll shows clearly where their 2007 vote has gone to.
And the Green Party, which has five seats in Dublin city and county seems poised to lose all of them. If it also loses out in Carlow-Kilkenny, it will have no seats in the Dail. Admittedly, its less than 1 per cent support level in this poll could be a by-product of the famous polling "margin of error", but the figures look very ominous. The party's ham-fisted departure from government seems to have harmed rather than helped it in the eyes of the electorate. Only 13 per cent of those who voted Green in 2007 intend to do so this time. It will be very difficult to mount any election campaign in this forlorn context.
Sinn Fein support levels at 10 per cent have remained fairly constant over the last two years since the economic meltdown -- and despite it. But there has been a huge jump in dissatisfaction with its leader Adams, who is now emerging as a serious problem for the party. His radio performances, including crass ignorance on the economy and denials of membership of the IRA, have simply eroded public feeling for him. Doubtless he will keep Arthur Morgan's seat in Louth and it is possible that SF on a good day could gain up to five more around the country. But they will not come near the FF total of TDs or vie for leadership of the opposition. Adams had a 60 per cent satisfaction rating running into the 2007 General Election -- now he has only 28 per cent. His dissatisfaction rating has grown from 26 per cent in 2007 to 54 per cent. Clearly he has completely failed to exploit the economic crisis.
If this is the extent of the post-Biffo bounce for Micheal Martin and FF, they will enter the next Dail with a small TD base and little or no fresh talent.
Which brings me to the reflection that it is only after the FG-Labour coalition takes office that the conditions will be right for a new centre-right party to emerge. There clearly will then be not merely "a gap in the market" but "a market in the gap" as well.
Clear doubts already entertained about the compatibility of FG and Labour as shown in this poll, coupled with the inevitable political attrition of having to implement the IMF's austerity measures over four years will take their toll on the new government.
Reading Fintan O'Toole's description this weekend of the predictable failure of himself and David McWilliams and others to put together a new political force in time for this election confirmed my own conviction that the time to start on that project is May or June of this coming year and the target must be the next general election. While there will be a slate of independents in the next Dail, there is no coherent unifying or guiding spirit to be detected behind their support base. They are receiving support because they are non-party rather than on the basis of a clear trend in public thinking.
Today's poll shows that there is a very deep unease about the choices open to Irish voters. Unless a new party emerges, we will be condemned to coalitions involving Labour into the future. FG had -- and arguably still has even now in this election -- an outside chance at governing by itself. But its leadership seems to have somehow missed the chance to capture and transform the public's confidence into support for an FG majority. For a party destined to lead the new government, it is worrying that its leader should have such a high dissatisfaction rating on the cusp of office.
Interestingly, voters are clear about where they stand on the Croke Park Agreement and the cost of the public sector. And Labour is totally out of sympathy with them and will be paralysed on these issues.
We need a change of government and we are going to get it. But the parties in an FG-Labour coalition are deeply divided on their political values. The IMF-ECB package seems set to be their agenda.
With a slimmed-down number of junior ministers, the new government will have many idle and disappointed backbenchers. As the truth slowly dawns on many of those backbenchers that they may not be re-elected and that the new Dail will be their one and only moment in the political sun, we will have all the ingredients for instability.
The term of this Dail could bring us up to the centenary of 1916. But, for some reason, I doubt that an FG-Labour coalition will be in office on that anniversary.
Michael McDowell is a former leader of the Progressive Democrats and a pratising senior counsel