Tuesday 22 October 2019

John Downing: 'Brexit will continue to cast its shadow - but health and housing crisis are also pressing concerns for voters'

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. Photo: Damien Eagers
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. Photo: Damien Eagers
John Downing

John Downing

So, round we go, heel-to-the-toe, with Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin more or less even-Stephen in the would-be Taoiseach stakes. Our TDs are "back to school" this week and we have a number of months to decide who should be the next Taoiseach.

Will it be the diffident Fine Gael leader billed as breaking new ground in a much- changed Ireland? Or will it be the tough survivor from the national economic wreckage who will claim he put things back between the ditches?

Our politicians are facing pretty horrendous and challenging times. How they manage will shape our economic fortunes into the coming years. Brexit remains the key issue - but it would be foolish to ignore the other potential pitfalls.

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Despite their claims, politicians always look at opinion polls, and their back-room advisers are always keen to drill down into the minute details. The TDs return to Leinster House after a long lay-off, with the results of the Red C survey for yesterday's 'Sunday Business Post' to cogitate.

The summer recess more usually gives the government parties a bit of a boost. The lack of publicity around the opposition being on their case during the summer vacation is a welcome break which raises government popularity ratings.

But the times we are living in are not "more usual political times". Fine Gael is leading a hybrid minority coalition and Fianna Fáil is both in opposition and keeping the current strange government in power. Where does that leave them -and the rest of us - trying to make sense of a political system we have never before encountered?

The "big two", Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, have dominated national life since this State's foundation. At one stage, their combined vote amounted to four out of five of the nation's adults. Now that combined vote hovers around half the national electorate. Since 2011, Fine Gael has managed a reverse ferret and edged ahead of Fianna Fáil.

Each party deserves kudos for providing government after the fragmented result in the last general election in February 2016. But their strange collaboration has given us a further blurring of boundaries as aged tribal loyalties also fade with the passing generations.

Leo Varadkar, an openly gay man with an immigrant background, caught the public imagination after his election as Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach in June 2017. His Government's handling of Brexit in the ensuing months certainly impressed people.

But Micheál Martin's persistence and courage in managing his party's strange and unprecedented position has more recently paid off. Yesterday's opinion poll tells us that Fine Gael is on 29pc to Fianna Fáil's 28pc.

Not much between the pair, then, and it suggests that the public is very much undecided.

Sinn Féin is on just 12pc, again confirming that it is stuck in the doldrums, despite the expected fillip that Mary Lou McDonald's election as a "post-war leader" was supposed to deliver in February 2018. The Independents are collectively on 13pc, while Labour is still stuck on 6pc, and the Green Party on an interesting 7pc.

That is roughly where the Greens were in the May 2007 general election when they won six Dáil seats and went into government with Fianna Fáil.

Thus, note Leo Varadkar having a pop at the Greens during his party's get-together in Cork last week. Eamon Ryan and company might be kingmakers again.

The worrying part for Fine Gael activists is that they were on a 33pc rating early this year.

Fianna Fáil people will be happy at the ground they have made up over the past year, with a good local election outcome in May. Mr Martin has also shown that his party has the ability to buck the opinion poll findings and do better at the ballot box, where it really counts.

There is, however, some solace for Fine Gael. The survey shows that 47pc of people believe that Mr Varadkar is a better Brexit operator. Mr Martin is rated as best at Brexit by just 34pc.

It does suggest that Fine Gael has an edge which is more than one percentage point here. But, then again, it also tells us that Brexit will very likely decide whether it will be Leo or Micheál for anchor tenant in Government Buildings next summer. The Red C pollster, Richard Colwell, notes that even one-third of Fianna Fáil voters rate Mr Varadkar as the more reliable person for Ireland's Brexit wars.

Brexit - and where it might land - has us all rather petrified. It has taken money out of the shops. This latest Red C survey tells us that one in five people admit to spending less pending what may well be a negative Brexit outcome.

The poll shows Fine Gael rated well in managing Brexit. But the party has cause for concern when it comes to the crucial issues of housing and health. All of the parties struggle to find out how to gain votes from these two elemental issues.

The problem is that most voters have a home, and be they ever so sympathetic towards those without, the issue may not be the decisive one when deciding how to vote. Similarly, unless the voter, or somebody close to them, is seriously ill and suffering inadequate treatment, health may not be the decider.

There is a perennial air of hopelessness surrounding health, and let's recall that Mr Martin was himself an under-achieving boom-time health minister.

But Fine Gael will hope for better weather on the housing front next year as it faces the voters.

All eyes will be on Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe as he puts the finishing touches to Budget 2020, to be presented on October 8. Mr Donohoe must reclaim his party's natural hinterland of prudent economic management, supported by warnings that Brexit bodes for a very uncertain future.

In these uncertain times, tax cuts are unlikely to attract mainstream support. The Fianna Fáil gut call in the last general election - that protecting and enhancing public services was the public's wish - still seems to hold sway. Almost two out of three people in that Red C poll said they would prefer more spending on public services over tax cuts or increased welfare payments. But, as with everything else in politics, timing is crucial here.

The current Brexit crisis may well have been played out before this year ends. The issue itself will continue for years to come. But the point is that even keen students of politics are showing signs of fatigue on this very vexed topic.

If Brexit is at least "parked", then the election in 2020 may very well be fought on very different issues. That brings us back to housing in particular.

Everyone in Fine Gael will hope that the "corner has been turned" on this issue. Even ardent party people have been dismayed at the lack of signs of progress up to now. They have also been a little wearied by Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy's lack of credibility.

This is the issue they must address.


Irish Independent

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