Is Fianna Fail’s difficulty everyone else’s opportunity?

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?

See also:

Stephen Spillane

European Tribune

Irish Polling Report

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  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Good to see that Dublin opinion is catching up with me 😉

  • As far as I can see, the hot-link to the “Irish Sun” isn’t active. So, I’m assuming that this is the Red C poll.

    If the poll there has the same reputation as that the “English Sun” has been running these last months, it has the reliability of a three-legged donkey in the 3:20 at Haydock.

  • Cormac Mac Art

    For myself, I would prefer to see the likes of the ULA gain votes. There are alternatives to voting SF, FG or Labour. However, I can’t see them doing as well as they’d like unless they really get busy between now and the election. They would appeal to those of us hardest hit by the recession, and would not have the baggage of all the other partys.

  • james

    As you said previously Mick, FG gained 10% and has held it, hardly groundmoving, and it necessitated locking Enda away somewhere (although I do think people are warming to him and FG are been over cautious)

    Labour has rocketed, can they deal with it, their leader no longer remembers what organisations he was in (at least Adams just denys) SF has experience in the North of dealing with a huge rise in votes, the coming weeks will be fun for Labour watchers, are they centralist or left, will they gamble and give the left to SF and fight FG for the centre or duck back.

    The added handicap is the obvious vote Labour get Fine Gael, whats a Stickie to do (whoops forgot he never was)

    (Hope Enda insists on ‘no government before guns)

  • Public opinion is in a state of flux at present. However it could be that many FF supporters are unwilling to OPENLY declare allegiance to the party. However in a general election situation and in the privacy of the ballot box many of them will probably rally to the party especially in the rural constituencies. Undoubtedly the party faces heavy losses in Dublin. However I cannot see the party wiped out.
    Its organisation is still quite strong in the rural constituencies. In addition many FF TDs in situ in the rural constituencies will have a certain personal following. This tends not to apply in some urban constituencies.

    Sinn Fein got a bounce from the by-election result. However it lacks strong candidates in most constituencies to take advantage of a large swing if such were to occur. I think it is unlikely that Sinn Fein can poll 15% in a general election situation.
    Some of those declaring allegiance to Sinn Fein in the polls are undoubtedly FF voters who will return to the party in a general election situation. If Labour were to poll 25% it is highly unlikely that Sinn Fein could secure 15%. Adding in left wing independents would then give a left wing vote of 40%+. Somehow I cannot see the left polling 40%+.

    So in summary as of now FF looks to be heading for a heavy defeat in the general election. However I cannot see the party being wiped out. Sinn Fein certainly will not outpoll FF. I have grave doubts that the Labour Party vote will exceed that of FF even though Labour will undoubtedly do very well.

  • Alias

    However it could be that many FF supporters are unwilling to OPENLY declare allegiance to the party.

    It’s the other way around: they’re unwilling to declare that they have lost their allegiance to the party

    Alias says: 18 November 2010

    I was talking to my wife’s uncle over the weekend, the chairman of a Fianna Fail Cumman, who told me that he intends to vote for Fine Gael at the next election. I asked him when he resigned from his beloved party, assuming he had, and he told me he was still working hard for the party.

    There is no method at all. Like many of his generation, the party is part of his way of life, comprising his culture, social milieu, and his father’s way of life. It’s like a faith, really. You lose your faith long before you leave the convent.

    There isn’t a FF man of any integrity who will tell you with any sincerity that his party deserves to be re-elected. He can’t lie to his family, and I suspect that it breaks his heart to have lost his faith in his party or to vote for a blueshirt but he just hasn’t left the convent yet. I just think that he should resign rather than continue to organise prayer meetings, but I’m really not that bothered by it. Suffice to say that if he feels that way then FF will all to lower than their core vote…

  • joeCanuck

    Public opinion is in a state of flux at present

    Yes, John, state of chassis you might say. I wouldn’t lay a bet on anything just now.

    Mick, one “Is” too many. You gotta employ that proof reader some day or else slow down a bit.

  • Mick Fealty


    But the polling company is as respectable as they come. And the movements aren’t that radical.

    That said, this is probably taken at the worst moment for FF. I expect a bounce back from here, if only to reflect the ferocity of the FF machine.

    Past polls tend to underestimate actual FF performances and overestimate that of Labour. But the pattern is consistent with the three part unravelling I suggest above.


    Yes. But the SF surge leaves them relatively untouched, whilst damaging their opponents. That said they do need to position themselves as something like the ‘reliable realists’ (when everyone else is promising ‘the moon on a stick’), and develop some kind (any??) of narrative.

  • Mick Fealty


    Good analysis (I’d have commended it, but can’t since you’re not registered. The one thing this poll tells us for certain is that we are in uncharted territory. Fortune, for once in Irish politics, may favour the bold.