Sinn Fein buying up capital at the bottom of the Irish political market…

So once again, Sinn Fein is sitting pretty in the polls. The Irish Times poll puts them on an unprecedented high, of 24%. Labour are down to 10%, which is roughly their lowest margin in the period between 2002 and the onset of the recession in the summer of 2008.

The hard core of the Labour vote remains with them, but the protest vote (which contains a sizeable chunk of former Fianna Fail voters) they gained in the last general election has already migrated and now lodges with Sinn Fein.

How long they stay there is a moot point, and is one of the reasons why Sinn Fein refuse to get giddy about poll ratings.

Continuing importance of the Adams factor

The stability of the party’s leadership allows for a degree of longer term planning that simply is beyond the capacity of most of its rivals. And the new crop of TDs is cashing in on their earlier promise. Asked on Friday about their performance Paddy Prenderville rightly picked out Mary Lou McDonald as one of the best performers in the Dail.

Adams himself is at best an indifferent performer when questioned tightly on the detail of policy. On RTE’s This Week yesterday, he struggled to explain to Colm O’Mongain his party’s fiscal objection to the treaty:

As Celia Larkin noted of his general performance, “he seems to have lost some of his sharpness. The surefootedness I witnessed during the peace process is now sporadic, rather than constant.”

But Adams’s incapacity to command any form of policy detail is irrelevant to Sinn Fein’s current growth in the polls. It is much more directly connected to the larger picture that the Republic (or “this state” in common SF parlance) now finds himself in.

Mr Adams did not ‘go into politics’ to save Ireland from the Euro or negotiate new terms for a second bailout. Happily for both himself and the country in the event of a No vote, the Irish constitution does not expect him to either.

The real advantage of an Adams leadership is, as Larkin also notes, that as leader he is virtually untouchable. There are no Eamon O’Cuiv’s to make waves for the leader in Sinn Fein. Rock the boat too much, and you’ll be told where the door is.

As the Irish Examiner’s Paul O’Brien noted on The Week in Politics last night, the party is not interested in the short term benefits of a Spring Tide, or a Gilmore Gale since each of those disappeared for Labour almost as soon as they arrived.

Adams in his own interview pointed to the local elections next year as the next step along the road.

Signs of life in Fianna Fail

One detail worth noting is a slight but definite move upwards in Fianna Fail’s rates. Whilst this merely brings the IPSOS MRBI poll into line with the others, Damian Loscher notes:

A three-point increase for Fianna Fáil, to 17 per cent, is a significant shift and the first real gain the party has made for some time. All of the gains were made outside Dublin. Notably, satisfaction with Micheál Martin’s performance has also risen substantially, to 31 per cent, a jump of seven points.

Fianna Fail not entirely be unhappy with the shift in focus away from their troubles in recent weeks. The party machine has had a good work out and for what might have been an unpopular (and strangely unpopulist) stance of their new leader to back the treaty in advance of next year’s local elections.

Away from the more public squeeze on Labour, this is where the critical long term fight for wider political legitimacy will take place. Ireland’s Battle of the Midway if you like.

Fianna Fail has considerable advantage over Sinn Fein out in the country at local council level (though 2009 was nothing like their peak), and it is this base the party has thrown the kitchen sink at since its stinging defeat in Dail elections last year.

Why people are swinging to Sinn Fein

Ms Larkin’s experience of one new convert is instructive:

In the conference hall itself, the order of the day was to build the party at all costs. I spoke to one young man who had just joined the party. “Why Sinn Fein?” I asked.

“I like their policies,” he said confidently.

“Like what?” I asked. “Which Sinn Fein policy do you like best?”

He fumbled his way into a brief silence. “I just can’t stand any of the other parties,” he eventually said, oblivious to the fact that he personifies the threat to all of those other parties.

Disenchantment, rather than policy, can be a great recruiting officer and that’s confirmed by today’s opinion poll.

Never apologise, never explain

At this stage it matters not that most of the Sinn Fein pitch is make-it-up-for-the-cameras policy. What matters most is that people are pissed at the others on the left (Labour), or the centre (Fianna Fail) and that Sinn Fein can be there to sooth them with kind words, if not quite promises.

Adams yesterday punched home the message that “Sinn Féin will not make any promises we will not keep”. Yet when challenged on his view that Ireland would find the money from somewhere to fill the country’s yawning fiscal gap, he was quick to correct the interviewer and remind him there is difference between a promise and mere analysis.

A tad Jesuitical for man educated by the Brothers. But few other parties have the depth of experience in confounding the glib expectations of a complacent establishment, not least by in fact promising as little as they can get away with.

Buying up capital at the bottom of the political market

At a time when Adams scores the highest of all political leaders in approval rates, at 37% he’s still running almost fifteen points behind his high scores of the mid naughties.

Back in 2009 when the global crisis was yet young my old friend and colleague David Steven noted in a presentation to an international gathering in Tokyo that this lack of confidence was far wider than any one country:

In a recent international poll, only half of respondents believe their leaders are up to the task of designing a suitable response to the financial crisis. Confidence was lowest here in Japan, the country that has the longest experience of financial turmoil.

Given that three years later – and despite the fact that Ireland is being asked to sign a contract to what is barely a quarter built measure to stabilise the economy in the Euro zone, there are still only vestigial signs of progress amongst Europe’s democratic leadership.

Europe has the means to stabilise the Eurozone… And if Wolfgang Münchau is to be believed they are closer to taking that action now than ever before. The problem is how do you do it in such a way as to make it stick with the Eurozone’s demos(es).

Or as David Steven put it back in 2009:

[It is] vitally important that reforms are designed in the open, not cooked up behind closed doors. Whatever solutions we come up with, they must emerge from a new engagement with citizens and efforts to develop domestic political conditions that allow international commitments to be made.

Except as in those increasingly immortal words “We all know what to do, but we don’t know how to get re-elected once we have done it.”

In the meantime, Ireland’s economic and democratic crises very much remain Sinn Fein’s big opportunity… Now is the time to pick up new pieces of political capital in what remains a severely devalued political market. Regardless of where they come from.