Sinn Fein has the most credible economic policies. Fine Gael is the party of high taxation. And Labour is the party of low taxation. These are the findings of the Sunday Independent/Millward Brown opinion poll taken early last week in 93 locations across the State.
Irish politics truly has been turned on its head.
Despite Sinn Fein having no experience running an economy and no experience running any of the three economics-focused departments in the North's devolved executive, one in four of those surveyed said that it had the most credible economic policies, more than any other party.
Despite Fine Gael in Government fighting for the burden of budgetary adjustment to fall mostly on spending cuts, rather than revenue increases, it has come to be seen as the party of higher personal taxes. When asked which party was most likely to stick its hand deeper into their pockets, 36 per cent of respondents pointed the finger at Fine Gael – almost twice the number nodding in the direction of Sinn Fein, the next highest ranked party.
If Fine Gael appears to be earning the ire of voters for the much increased personal tax burden over recent years, the Labour Party has dodged the blame for that aspect of austerity. Despite favouring tax hikes over spending cuts, just 7 per cent of respondents believe its policies will lead to more of their income being taken by the State, the lowest of the four parties.
The findings of the poll are worse for Fine Gael than for Labour. That so many voters, including the higher- earning 'ABC1s', believe it is the party most likely to increase personal taxation is doubly damaging.
Not only does this suggest that Fine Gael is alienating its natural constituency, but it leaves the senior partner in Coalition particularly vulnerable to the emergence of a new party advocating relief for medium and higher income earners who pay Scandinavian levels of tax while not receiving anything like the quality and quantity of services their Nordic counterparts enjoy.
The most immediate implications of the poll, coming on top of the hammering the Coalition parties received in the May elections, will be to make the renegotiation of the programme for government in July even more difficult and make the formulation of Budget 2015 almost impossible if another dose of austerity has to be spooned up in October.
The findings will ratchet up the pressure on Fine Gael negotiators to place more of the burden on spending cuts, rather than tax increases, given its weakness on tax.
For Labour, the findings of the survey will have exactly the opposite effect on its negotiators. For the new leader of the Labour Party, agreeing to any further cuts in the next Budget might be viewed as politically impossible in the context of attempting to differentiate her/his leadership from that of Eamon Gilmore – and without successfully reinforcing real differentiation in the minds of voters, it seems highly unlikely that the party can rebuild support.
Given the changed interests of both Coalition partners, it is increasingly difficult to see how Fine Gael and Labour will be able to agree on another package of adjustments in October, if that turns out to be unavoidable because of the numbers, or Brussels' assessment of the numbers.
If the dynamics of October's Budget will act as a centrifugal force on the Coalition, the crumbling of the longer-term strategy upon which the parties' hopes of a second term were pinned raises further the probability of an early election.
That strategy was based on being rewarded for economic recovery come election time. But with just 22 months – at the very most – to a general election, it looks increasingly unlikely, even in a best-case scenario for the economy, that enough of a feelgood factor will be generated to reverse the very high levels of dissatisfaction with the Government's performance.
The resignation of Eamon Gilmore suggests that Labour understands this and that survival, not a second term, is its goal at the next election.
The same cannot be said of Fine Gael. Despite the real trouble it is in, as the poll underscores, it remains complacent. It continues to allow itself to be portrayed as the party of austerity for austerity's sake and its reputation for competence has been eroded by the almost unending string of errors over the past six months.
It says much about the extent of the drift that a party which spoke to the point of parody about its Five-Point Plan during the last general election campaign has failed to develop any sort of post-austerity plan and narrative beyond offering vague hopes of tax cuts in future Budgets.
With Sinn Fein sitting pretty, Fianna Fail regaining ground faster than most expected and Labour's leadership change offering as least a chance of recovering some lost support, Fine Gael's failure to plot a path to a better future that it can clearly explain to voters leaves it in a very dangerous place.
If Fine Gael appears adrift, Sinn Fein is moving in exactly the direction it wants, and has most to be pleased with from the poll. The party appears not only to have gone a distance towards neutralising one of its traditional weakness – the fear that it would turn the Republic into Cuba without the palm trees if it ever ran the economy – but it might even be turning economics into a strength.
To be deemed by the electorate to have the most credible economic policies, as today's polls suggests, is truly astonishing. Just as astonishing – and confirming the party's advances among the middle classes – is the find-ing that almost one in five ABC1 voters believes Sinn Fein's economic policies to be the most credible, second only to Fine Gael, among these higher earners.
All of these developments point to an election sooner rather than later and Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Sinn Fein being the only parties with significant representation in the next Dail. But with none of those parties willing to enter into government as a junior partner, it is almost impossible to see what sort of coalition could be cobbled together. Does ungovernability beckon?