Sunday 15 December 2019

John Downing: 'In the next election much will depend on 'trust' - or the lack of it - by voters in Varadkar or Martin'

Leo Varadkar and Micheal Martin
Leo Varadkar and Micheal Martin
John Downing

John Downing

It was a fleeting moment which posed some intriguing questions about that most slippery political concept - trust, or the lack of it, between voters and political leaders.

The moment, and the ensuing events, recalled Irish people in the late 1970s and early 1980s commenting on the prospect of the late Charlie Haughey becoming Taoiseach.

"Yeah, I'd say Charlie is a bit of a crook - but we need a crook right now given the state this country is in," was a common summary of the mood among a section of the public.

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Our latest trust moment came on Thursday evening, early in the second UK election television debate, when a woman with a strong Scottish accent said: "Hello prime minister, I'd just like to ask you how important it is for someone in your position of power to always tell the truth?"

Before Boris Johnson could reply the rest of the studio audience had burst out laughing and loudly applauded. It may be due to the UK prime minister's renown for having a very loose relationship with the truth.

But with 16 days left to the UK general election polling day on December 12, an expert analysis of many opinion polls suggests that Mr Johnson is set fair to win a solid majority. A huge swathe of the UK population does not think too much of Mr Johnson's integrity, but it still mistrusts him less than it does Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn when it comes to choosing a leader to order its national affairs.

We have been here many times before in recent generations of Irish politicians. All through the 1980s, the received wisdom was that Dr Garret FitzGerald was "Garret the Good", while his arch-rival Charlie Haughey of Fianna Fáil was more than "a bit of a lad".

But Garret won in 1981, lost to Charlie in February 1982, and then won again in November 1982. All three elections were very close run things and when Charlie won again in 1987 he still did not have an overall majority.

There were of course several complicating factors - not least the Irish economy being in rag order with high unemployment, huge public debt and big levels of emigration. But people's trust in these two leaders, or the lack of it, was a big deciding factor.

The pair's "good" and "bad" images were double-edged. The concept of good is sometimes rated close to gormless. And not everyone agrees that "bad" can automatically equate to effectiveness.

There are other examples in recent Irish politics. In the May 2007 General Election campaign, the surveys revealed that Fine Gael's Enda Kenny for a time appeared the better bet for voters.

But late in the campaign, that one turned, and with economic storm clouds becoming visible, the voters opted for Bertie Ahern's Fianna Fáil, despite the latter's huge public problems about his personal finances. Bertie's heft to some degree trumped Enda's plausibility.

In a sense next Friday voters in the four by-elections in Cork North Central, Dublin Fingal, Dublin Mid-West and Wexford will in part be asked to make a character assessment of not just individual candidates, but also their party leaders and senior colleagues. Among the things we will be looking at after the counts next Saturday is how the "big two" will fare in comparison to one another, with implications for the trust ratings of the leaders Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin.

The Red C opinion poll for 'The Business Post' newspaper, published yesterday, sustained the trend that Fine Gael, on 30pc, is still ahead of Fianna Fáil, rated on 24pc. For various reasons, not least the difficulty always for government parties to win by-elections, Micheál Martin can expect a good day for bragging rights next Saturday.

Leo Varadkar's staff are already preparing those explanation speaking notes, outlining how, all things considered, it was not a bad day and life will go on, serving the people until a general election in the first half of next year. By-elections can sometimes, but not always, be a harbinger of what is to come in the bigger contest.

Fianna Fáil strategists believe they can win two of the by-elections in Cork North Central and in Wexford. They still do not rule out a win in Dublin Fingal for Lorraine Clifford-Lee despite her rather accident-strewn campaign.

The point for Fianna Fáil and Micheál Martin is that a good day out on Friday could help them seize back the momentum which right now seems to be with Fine Gael. Mr Martin's speciality is trying to gainsay opinion polls, which he did with some success in two local and one general election, and chiding the pundits at count centres.

By contrast, on a good day, Fine Gael could win the seat being vacated by Frances Fitzgerald in Dublin Mid-West. At Leinster House there are varying reports about the likely fortunes of its little-known candidate.

The performance of Fine Gael's embattled Wexford candidate, Verona Murphy, will be closely monitored. A bad day out for her would have internal consequences for Mr Varadkar and his strategists who will face questions about candidate choice and vetting. Otherwise, many of us will be again assessing what the by-elections will have to tell us about a general election due next year. The questions will be manifold.

Can Sinn Féin show some signs of lifting itself out of its current trough where it appears becalmed if not actually going into a reverse?

What of Labour, some of whose activists see it having the potential to win in Dublin Fingal?

If the Green Party really is as strong as it is vaunted, can it make a strong showing?

We will also be looking at the implications for likely transfer patterns ahead in the general election. These could well decide who becomes the anchor tenant in Government Buildings next summer.

We are assuming that the general election will not happen until after next Easter. One thing learned from these by-elections is that most people associated with politics believe that this is no day of the year to be going on the stump.

You can never rule out accidents or unforeseen events - but all things being equal we're very likely looking at a general election next May. It will be a long and wearing campaign because in reality it has already begun.

It is interesting to note that many believe that, if yesterday's Red C opinion poll was replicated on polling day, we would once again have a hung Dáil. For fans of traditional politics that would mean a renewal of political paralysis with not much getting done.

But come the general election we will again have our "trust moments". The big question will be who do you trust most - or at the limit mistrust least - Leo Varadkar or Micheál Martin to pull things together?

Most elections are "presidential", turning on how the leader is perceived.

The next one will be more presidential than ever.

Irish Independent

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