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New set-ups have potential to take votes from main parties


Lucinda Creighton

Lucinda Creighton

Lucinda Creighton

When voters go to the polls this year or next, it looks more likely than ever that they will be faced with a bewildering range of options to form the next government.

In the old days it was all rather simple: Fianna Fail or Fine Gael with Labour thrown in and/or a handful of Independents to make up the numbers.

In more recent times, the Progressive Democrats filled the gap and on one occasion the Greens, in both instances with the support of Independents, ultimately to the damage of the smaller and more ideologically driven parties.

These days, most Independents have formed a view that they should and could have far more influence over national policy than had previously been the case.

That said, there remains a cohort of local interest Independents who have not signed up to any of these newfangled movements and, to support a government, would be more than happy to continue to fertilise their local constituency for the next five years.

The highpoint which sparked action among the more progressive Independents came last December when a Sunday Independent/Millward Brown opinion poll showed support for Independents at a record 32pc, a level of support which suggested at the time that voters wanted more from their Independents than they have been offered in the past.

That massive support came at the peak of opposition to the introduction of water charges through Irish Water and was recorded at a time when hundreds of thousands took to the streets in protest nationwide.

Undoubtedly, the finding provoked Independents in Leinster House to act on, where before they seemed to just talk about, setting up either new political parties and/or political alliances to capitalise on the anti-establishment fervour which had gripped the country.

Since then, according to our most recent opinion poll in April, support for Independents/others has fallen a significant 12 points to 20pc, which includes Renua (2pc) and the Socialist Party (2pc); in other words, support for Independents was not wildly off a level it has always been at this remove from a general election.

So the movement behind Independents may have peaked or missed the boat - if such a boat ever existed in the first place.

The fall in support for Independents can be attributed to several factors, but is probably most likely associated with the recovery of the economy at a time when the Government had managed to eradicate self-inflicted problems which had bedevilled it throughout the previous year.

Since then, however, the Government has landed itself in another mess: a new Commission of Inquiry has been set up into the IBRC liquidation just as a report into the source of its earlier self-inflicted problem, to do with the 'retirement' of Martin Callinan as Garda Commissioner, is about to be published. On top of all of that, the Irish Water debacle has reared its head again, this time through the revelation that householders will have to fork out thousands of euro to replace lead pipes on their property.

These most recent events may yet have a recorded impact on the popularity of the Coalition, which until recently was harbouring ambitions of a return to power with Fine Gael gaining opinion poll support to 28pc and Labour possibly putting a floor under its dramatic fall, now at around 10pc.

If nothing else, the fluctuations in the fortunes of the Coalition partners and the rise and fall in support for the Independents show how volatile the electorate can be even as a general election approaches right up to polling week itself in most instances.

Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein, meanwhile, are waiting in the wings with significant blocks of support in or around or between 20-25pc and the Greens, of course, at 3pc in April, are as relevant as Renua and the Socialists and must also be in the bewildering mix.

From that high of 32pc last December has emerged not just Renua, which must be somewhat disappointed with its initial impact, and what is called the Shane Ross/Michael Fitzmaurice alliance of well-established Independent TDs and new recruits, but now also something else again.

This week came confirmation that another new party may be in the offing in the form of the expertise of Stephen Donnelly, the ministerial integrity of Roisin Shortall and the zeitgeist buzz of Catherine Murphy.

As such, this new party, if it is actually formed, may yet trump both Renua and Ross and capture the imagination of a most volatile electorate, which is far from settled in its view.

The three new set-ups have the potential to not only appeal to that 20pc support for Independents/others but take further votes from the more established parties, broadly speaking: Renua from Fine Gael; Ross/Fitzmaurice from Fianna Fail and Donnelly/Shortall/Murphy from Labour/Sinn Fein.

That's all well and good in a popularity contest, which is what opinion polls are at any given time.

But general elections, as such, are not about popularity contests - a phone-in on some reality TV programme - rather they are about the formation of a government for the next five years, which is a serious business.

When voters go to the polls in such an election they tend to do so in a different frame of mind than in local and European elections or on a referendum question.

This time around, the inclination would seem to be not to rock the boat of economic recovery too much.

What is striking about the Donnelly/Shortall/Murphy initiative, however, is its firm pitch into social democracy, that is, while adopting a sensible economic approach, the prospective new party is also highlighting the development of a more equal society to be just as important as Fine Gael's (outwardly) more one dimensional economy-first approach.

At a deeper level, Labour has further reason to be concerned, but so too does Fine Gael.

When the Coalition repeatedly conspires to do harm to itself, as it has again over the IBRC controversy, you have to wonder whether that is really just the nature of government in general or, in fact, whether there is something more problematic at the heart of the functionality of this Government.

At this stage, the question has become a real concern: did Troika discipline actually "save" the economy and, if not, then why have Fine Gael and Labour spent two years since its departure displaying a level of competency which has only seldom risen above average on a consistent enough basis to reassure?

With these concerns in mind, the problem facing the electorate is what form of government will emerge from an ever more crowded field and when.

In Belgium in 2010/2011 it took 19 months, or a world record 541 days to put together a six-party coalition, a nightmare scenario unlikely to unfold here, in fairness.

But in such a crowded field, and if voters remain so volatile and divided, negotiations to form a new government will be more protracted than ever and fraught with difficulty as never before to agree a Programme for Government, unless of course Fine Gael and Fianna Fail move quickly to embrace the seeming inevitable.

Sunday Independent