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A nation ready for change

THE detailed questions in our latest opinion poll show a country both conservative and, in some areas, remarkably open to change. This paradox may help to explain the surprises of the election campaign.

The electorate is conservative when it comes to public finances and who it trusts to look after them. This may do more to explain Fine Gael's success relative to Labour than the performances of their leaders.

There is an irony here for Labour. Understandably, perhaps, it feels that it received scant reward in the 1997 election for Ruairi Quinn's sound fiscal management. In this campaign it stressed instead that it would not be a high-tax party.

No two elections are the same, however, and today's conditions are the mirror opposite of those of 1997. It may not be the other parties' accusations that Labour would be a high-tax party which did most damage, but Labour's own message that higher spending, lower taxes and some extra borrowing was the right mix. It is less surprising that Labour is behind Fine Gael on public sector reform. There is a great appetite for such reform at least outside the public sector, and to some extent within it.

While reality may be somewhat different, Fine Gael's right-wing image may have helped portray it as the party to trim officialdom.

While Labour will be disappointed if it does not come closer to matching Fine Gael on polling day, the message for Fianna Fail is more alarming. It may never have had a strong image on fiscal caution, but it was seen as the party which could best balance growth against stability.

That reputation is now destroyed. As reported in our business section, the report into the workings of the Department of Finance finds that the high-spend, high-pay, low-tax policies of the Ahern administrations since 2002 are largely to blame for the crisis.

Experience elsewhere -- especially that of Britain's Conservatives after the currency crisis of 1991 -- suggests that once the party of competence is seen as the party of incompetence, the road to recovery can be very long indeed.

Much of this is as expected. That is not the case for the finding that three in five people are in favour of same-sex marriages. Taken together with Archbishop Diarmuid Martin's comments about the decline of the Catholic Church, it is evidence that, outside of financial matters, the country may be changing even faster than the politicians can follow.

Irish Independent