Wednesday 19 June 2019

Politics of fear bombs on doorsteps as voters back independent champions

Social Democrat co-leader Róisín Shortall talking to John Patrick Whelan on Grafton Street. Photo: Fergal Philip
Social Democrat co-leader Róisín Shortall talking to John Patrick Whelan on Grafton Street. Photo: Fergal Philip
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

With just three days of campaigning left before the country goes to the polls, support for Fine Gael and Labour is stagnating while support for Independents surges.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. The coalition partners had a well-rehearsed clarion call entering this election - voters could opt to 'keep the recovery going' and choose between 'stability or chaos'.

Three weeks later and, if the opinion polls are to be believed, that doomsday message has had no discernible impact on voter preferences. If anything, it has backfired with much of the electorate apparently determined to eschew stability in favour of the supposed chaos of small parties and Independent candidates.

Yesterday's 'Irish Times' Ipsos/MRBI poll underscored the problem facing the Coalition in stark terms. Fine Gael is devoid of any momentum and has dropped back to 28pc while Labour is facing annihilation on just 6pc, with their combined support nowhere near enough to form a government.

Strategists from both parties thought that, at this stage in the election cycle, voters would have finished flirting with alternative candidates and, perhaps unenthusiastically, opted for the devil they knew. Instead, Fianna Fáil has made steady gains while support for a disparate group of small parties and Independent candidates has shown no sign of eroding as the date of the election draws closer.

Despite all of the warnings from the establishment parties about the danger of voting for small parties or Independent candidates, their support nationally is at 28pc. However, this impressive figure is dwarfed in Dublin, where support for small parties and Independents is at an astonishing 41pc.

This mammoth figure breaks down as Independent candidates on 9pc, both the Social Democrats and the AAA/PBP on 7pc, Shane Ross's Independent Alliance on 6pc, the Greens on 4pc, Renua on 3pc and other groupings on 3pc, with a further 3pc expressing general support for Independent candidates. To put that figure into perspective, Fine Gael is the second most popular party in the capital on just 22pc while Fianna Fáil is languishing on 13pc with Sinn Féin faring slightly better on 14pc, having slid four points in the polls in the past week.

If this level of support for Independents and small parties were to hold up when voters go to the polls, it would cause an earthquake on election day with candidates from all of the traditional parties losing seats in every constituency in Dublin.

While members of Fine Gael and Labour have derided Independent TDs as disorganised and inept, incapable of coalescing to form a government, jaded voters, who feel betrayed by establishment parties, are increasingly willing to give small parties and Independent candidates a shot.

While once, Independent candidates were synonymous with single-issue local campaigns, like championing a local hospital, a number of high-profile Independent TDs in the outgoing Dáil have shown that politicians don't need to be a member of a party to make a difference. Catherine Murphy, now a leader in the Social Democrats, was instrumental in holding the Government to account over the Siteserv controversy which resulted in a commission of investigation being set up.

The fact that the Government managed to botch the terms of reference of the inquiry further underscores the fact that increased resources, enjoyed by government TDs and those affiliated with large parties, are no guarantee of competence. Similarly, Independent TDs Clare Daly and Mick Wallace were central in the setting up on an inquiry into allegations made by Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe.

It is notable that throughout the tenure of the last Dáil, it has not been members of established political parties that have been imperative in holding State institutions to account, but rather Independent TDs who acted on confidential information from whistleblowers and refused to be deterred from seeking answers despite the intransigence of disinterested ministers.

It is also notable that many backbench Government TDs, despite the increased supports and resources that the machinery of a political party offers, have been content to remain anonymous on a national stage while they engage in parish pump politics with the sole intention of getting re-elected.

The only contribution of these TDs to national politics has been to troop into the Dáil on command and vote for legislation that few of them have even bothered to read.

The stellar performance of some Independent TDs is not the only reason for their resurgence in the polls. The inability of Labour to sufficiently distinguish itself from its right-wing Coalition partner in Government has also led to its vote collapsing. The creation of the Social Democrats can, in part, be traced back to Róisín Shortall leaving Labour after accusing its leadership of acquiescing to cronyism in the allocation of health resources and failing to support her in her role as junior health minister.

The reticence of the party to reform schemes like JobBridge, which have been shown to be open to abuse by venal employers, and its pathetic efforts to improve the discredited direct provision system exemplify how Labour has been stymied in government by its Coalition partners.

Meanwhile, the continued scandal of the homelessness crisis, with yesterday's announcement that a record number of families in Dublin became homeless last month, is further evidence that the much vaunted 'recovery' has yet to be felt by many in society.

As Government parties have seen their carefully-crafted election campaigns go down in flames, with voters refusing to be scared into submission by their co-ordinated campaigns of fear, it is now time for a rethink. Instead of engaging in negative campaigning for the final few days, casting aspersions on "whingers" and political opponents, perhaps their time would be better spent highlighting what they have to offer and what distinguishes them from the opposition.

This evening's leaders' debate will be the last opportunity for Enda Kenny and Joan Burton to try to connect with voters en masse and convince them to give them a second term. The stakes for both leaders have never been higher.

Irish Independent

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