As Aristotle once remarked, ‘Nature abhors a vacuum’. And the ‘empty space’ at the top of the Irish political game at the moment is the one Taoiseach Brian Cowen should have been occupying for the last two years.
A poll in today’s Irish Sun marks a new low point in Cowen’s leadership of his country, and his party who dropped four points on a similar poll conducted just two weeks ago. Fianna Fail now rests at just 13%.
It is only the latest twist in a series of shifts in public opinion which have taken place over the last two years. As Garrett FitzGerald noted in the Irish Times on Wednesday, the drift from Fianna Fail is at least two years old.
Cowen’s party is probably best described as a populist, Gaulist type national alliance, relying for its support on a very broad bundle of classes and interests. Until twenty years ago that was such a powerful swathe of Irish society that it never needed partners to form a government.
In more recent times, whilst it has continued to be the ‘boss’ party of Irish politics, it has had to rely on multi coloured partnerships with fringe parties like the Progressive Democrats and the Greens and various independents.
But the leeching of voters in the polls since their ill fated bank guarantee scheme of September 2008, has been historic. The apparent loss of sovereignty in being forced to accept the bail out looks like it may be the last straw for its base support.
The first tranche of opinion to desert were those on the right. By and large these went directly to old rivals Fine Gael. By last summer’s local elections FG had received a boost on their general election turnout of a good ten percent: pretty much where they remain today.
Labour’s rise was slightly later, but their rise in the polls has continued, so that whilst back in 2007 they polled a mere 14 percent the latest batch of polls have them up in the late twenties/early thirties. Their leader Eamon Gilmore’s populist on government public sector cuts plans has helped them slice directly into Fianna Fail’s once strong urban working class vote.
But this latest poll demonstrates that the last stalwarts to ‘leave’, the hard core southern Republican base, are now contemplating the previously unthinkable: and voting for Sinn Fein, who until recently left in the ‘forgotten-by-the-voters’ category.
As Ireland buckles down to paying a debt that it may not have the capacity to service, to that extent, last week’s by election in Donegal South West may come to be ssen as a game-changing moment in Ireland’s political life.
New Sinn Fein TD Pearse Doherty grabbed 40% of all first preferences, and 60% of all first and second preferences in the Single Transferable Vote system, something that was previously unheard of in the politics of the Republic.
This was a significant breach of cultural barrier that has kept Sinn Fein as a minor voice. It comes at a time when, as the economist and broadcaster David McWilliams has said “Everyone is waiting for someone to stick there hand up and say ‘follow me’”.
Justice Minister Dermot Ahern – who’s strongest appeal is probably to that Republican wing of Fianna Fail – caused much consternation earlier this week when he stepped down in Louth last week. Perhaps he’d heard what had been whispered in the Belfast press, that his seat was not as safe as media opinion in Dublin had generally assumed.
As result, Gerry Adams – who at the very last minute has vaulted over the border to run as a TD in Ahern’s multi member constituency – is now likely to breeze home a great deal closer to the top of the poll than he might have previously expected.
This close to an election it is hard to know how much weight to put on what is still a last minute swing (the next general election is expected as soon as January or February). If they didn’t know before, Fianna Fail have had it confirmed to them that their durable long term national alliance is unraveling at an alarming rate.
To twist an old Republican saw, Fianna Fail’s difficulty is now Sinn Fein’s opportunity. But, in the short term at least, the main beneficiaries are still likely to be Labour and particularly Fine Gael.
Their problem: what on earth can they do with the scorched earth legacy left them by the outgoing coalition?