Sunday 16 June 2019

Colette Browne: 'FG faces a stark warning - sort out housing, health and the environment or your days are numbered'

'Ordinarily, local and European elections come with a serious health warning.
People are advised not to read too much into the results as voters tend to use them to give sitting government parties a drubbing' (stock photo)
'Ordinarily, local and European elections come with a serious health warning. People are advised not to read too much into the results as voters tend to use them to give sitting government parties a drubbing' (stock photo)
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

Pollsters asked to identify the biggest concern for voters usually say, "it's the economy, stupid". But, in Friday's elections, it will likely be "housing and the environment, stupid", and bigger parties may come to rue their complacency on these issues.

A quick glance at a recent Red C opinion poll would suggest that Fine Gael has nothing to worry about.

Its candidates, in each of the three constituencies for the European elections, are all topping the poll, meaning the party is almost certain to secure at least three seats, with a fourth up for grabs in Midlands North-West.

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But, dig a bit deeper, and support for the party seems to be waning.

Nationally, in the past month, its vote share has dropped from 33pc to 28pc - the first time it has slipped below 30pc in a Red C poll since 2017.

In Dublin, the collapse in support is even more pronounced. In April, support for the party in the capital stood at 37pc. At the weekend, this figure had dropped to just 26pc.

Given housing is by far the biggest issue for voters in Dublin, it is reasonable to infer from these figures that Fine Gael's persistent failure in housing could have serious electoral consequences for the party.

Underscoring that housing could be at the root of increased dissatisfaction with Fine Gael, its support among young voters has haemorrhaged in the past month - dropping from 38pc to just 25pc.

To add to the party's woes, it also lost support among 35 to 54-year-olds, going from 31pc to 21pc, and just managed to remain static among those aged 55 and over, at 34pc.

Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy's Marie Antoinette moment yesterday, when he stated young workers should be "excited" about the prospect of moving into 'co-living' developments, will not have helped.

Unsurprisingly, many people are decidedly unenthused about paying €1,300 per month to rent a bedroom that comprises a smaller area than a disabled parking space (16.5 square metres versus 17.2 square metres) while sharing cooking facilities with more than 40 people.

Five years after Fine Gael in government published its first housing plan and this is its allegedly most innovative solution to increase supply in the rental market. The minister's comments, demonstrating a level of disassociation with reality last witnessed when Comical Ali was giving press briefings in Baghdad, will not inspire confidence.

Coming in the same month that a report revealed the lowest number of rental properties since it began collating data in 2006 - just 2,700 units available nationally - and one could understand the party being subject to a kicking, particularly if young people get out and vote.

Alarmingly for Fianna Fáil, it has been unable to capitalise on this collapse in support for its rival. In Dublin, the party has failed to recover very much since its historic meltdown in 2011 and now stands at 17pc.

However, it is the national poll that will cause most concern. Fianna Fáil managed to increase its share by just one point, to 24pc, but the Green Party doubled its support in the same period, going from 7pc to 14pc.

If the 'Sunday Business Post'/Red C poll is on the money, the results mean that Friday's European and local elections could see a Green wave, with voters beginning to return to the Green Party as concern about climate change becomes a salient issue in an Irish election for, arguably, the first time.

Fine Gael, in government, has an abysmal record on the environment. Last month, its national climate change plan was derided as "way off track" by a respected NGO, Climate Action Network.

It stated the plan was "way off track with its greenhouse gas emission reductions in sectors such as transport, buildings, waste and agriculture... both for 2020 and 2030" and "does not demonstrate high ambition on energy savings and renewable energy, indicating a lack of focus in their actions for the next decade".

Meanwhile, Ireland is set to miss its EU targets for greenhouse gas emission reductions by a staggering degree - achieving a derisory 1pc reduction on 2005 levels by 2020, instead of the target of 20pc.

This abject failure is not just bad for the environment, it's bad for the nation's finances.

Recently, Environment Minister Richard Bruton announced the State would likely have to spend €150m next year to buy carbon credits to compensate for missing this target.

The performance of Fine Gael MEPs in Europe is no better.

The group that they are aligned with in the European Parliament, the European People's Party, has the worst voting record on climate change of any EU grouping. According to Climate Action Network, it shows a "complete lack of support for climate action".

Given the degree to which environmental issues are coming up on doorsteps in these elections, candidates from every party and none are now desperately attempting to greenwash their image, painting themselves as champions of climate action.

But voting records and statistics do not lie.

And Ireland, under successive Fine Gael governments, has been among the worst performers in the EU on the issue.

In rural areas, it remains to be seen whether other parties can capitalise on the notion that Fine Gael in government has abandoned its region.

With 159 post offices having closed around the country, the shuttering of rural Garda stations, long waiting lists in the health service, and new drink-driving legislation that many view as penalising rural dwellers, opposition candidates have a lot of ammunition in their arsenal with which to launch an attack.

Regrettably for Fianna Fáil, it appears a strategic error regarding the number of candidates it decided to run in Midlands North-West means it could again be left without a seat in that constituency, where support for the party has historically been relatively high.

Having opted to run two candidates, TDs Brendan Smith and Anne Rabbitte, it has managed to split its support with the result that both could lose out - the exact same error it made in 2014.

Ordinarily, local and European elections come with a serious health warning. People are advised not to read too much into the results as voters tend to use them to give sitting government parties a drubbing.

However, with a general election likely to just be around the corner, these results could presage how that will play out.

According to the weekend's opinion poll results, that message for Fine Gael could be stark - get some results on housing, health and the environment or we'll kick you out.

Irish Independent

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