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Jody Corcoran: 'FF may suffer from having stuck with FG deal for so long'

Jody Corcoran


The only certainty of the campaign so far is that people want change and Sinn Fein could benefit, writes Jody Corcoran

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Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin at Virgin Media One studios, Dublin as the leaders of the two main parties in the Irish General Election go head to head in a television debate (Brian Lawless/PA).

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin at Virgin Media One studios, Dublin as the leaders of the two main parties in the Irish General Election go head to head in a television debate (Brian Lawless/PA).

PA Wire/PA Images

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin at Virgin Media One studios, Dublin as the leaders of the two main parties in the Irish General Election go head to head in a television debate (Brian Lawless/PA).

As we enter a defining week in the General Election, the only certainty of the campaign so far is that people want change.

This should be good news for Fianna Fail and bad news for Fine Gael, but it is not as simple as that.

The problem for Fianna Fail is that the public has come to see it as indistinguishable from Fine Gael.

And therefore people are, in increasing numbers, having a closer look at Sinn Fein, such is the strong desire for change. There is a lazy assumption that this will be a brief flirtation and that in the end potential Sinn Fein support will fall away when the votes are counted.

Ordinarily I would agree with that assessment, but I am not so sure this time.

It depends on how strong the desire for change really is and in this defining week how Fianna Fail presents itself as change, even radical change after nine years of Fine Gael.

And that is easier said than done.

There is a famous quote from the memoir of former Labour minister Barry Desmond on the difference between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail: "Dem dat know don't need to ask and dem dat don't know don't need to know."

For the Fianna Fail campaign to catch fire, and it is as yet only smouldering, Micheal Martin needs to remind the many and explain to a new generation the essential differences between the two parties which emerged from the civil war, and there are genuine differences related to founding republican values.

They say that Brexit is not an issue in this election and in itself that is true - but it is still having a huge effect on the possible outcome.

Here's why: Fianna Fail stuck with its confidence and supply deal with Fine Gael for four years, at least a year longer than most expected. The reason was Brexit.

The longer Fianna Fail stuck, the more Fine Gael budgets it facilitated, the more it became indistinguishable from the party associated with the health and housing crises and other issues, not least the outlier pension age issue.

In the aftermath of the economic and banking crash, Micheal Martin undertook confidence and supply as a sort of recompense to show that Fianna Fail was responsible and could be trusted again. In the process, however, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael effectively became one in the eyes of the public. Now Micheal Martin finds himself in the position of having to explain the differences, which I expect he will set about doing this week.

But if he is unsuccessful, Fianna Fail may yet find itself caught between a rock and a hard place: those minded to maintain the status quo may opt for Fine Gael in greater numbers and those minded to change may go all the way to Sinn Fein.

The apparent increase in Sinn Fein support is not solely down to younger people who do not come out to vote, which usually results in Sinn Fein's vote falling significantly from its opinion poll levels.

The demographics of recent opinion polls shows Sinn Fein this time commanding equal support to Fine Gael and close to Fianna Fail among voters aged in their 50s and early 60s, before falling away among over 65s.

The only reasonable explanation for this is the pension age issue. Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have tried to neutralise this issue with promises of interim payments, reviews and postponing the pension age increase.

It remains to be seen whether such promises are enough, or have come too late to be believed; or whether Sinn Fein can turn its increased support into extra seats, a moot point considering several of its TDs have retired.

The great middle ground of the electorate - Moby Dick - has yet to move, but is starting to stir.

It could yet stick with Fine Gael, which has run a set-piece campaign, with Leo Varadkar now less visible on the hustings; or about-turn completely - a dramatic move - to Sinn Fein, whose leader has still not come under the spotlight.

My hunch is that the people will eventually and late in the day re-direct towards Fianna Fail in sufficient numbers - but that is only a hunch.

All three parties could end up at current poll levels and we may have to do this all over again in six months.

Everything will depend on how well Micheal Martin explains the true purpose, meaning and essence of the party he leads.

His ability to be a leader, therefore, is about to be tested as never before. That is as it should be.

Is he up to the challenge? Again my hunch is yes, but that too is only a hunch.

Sunday Independent