Is 2014 going to be a seminal year for Irish politics?

So here’s the latest Red C poll:

Fine Gael 28% (-1%) ; Labour 10% (-2%) ; Fianna Fail 22% (n/c) ; Sinn Fein 18% (+3%) ; Independents 22% (n/c)

With European and local council elections coming up this year there is an opportunity for the political parties to lay down a political marker for the run in to the next general election which is currently thought most likely to be called late next year.

Looking back to 2009 results there seems to be only one party that’s almost guaranteed to walk away with more seats, and that’s Sinn Fein. The latest Red C poll sees them at 18%, well above their 7% in 2009. They’ve barely drifted below 15% since the general election, so they must be slated for significantly large gains.

The real head melter for Labour is that this flip between their own and Sinn Fein’s fortunes is based on an historic increase in SF’s vote rather than the steep decline in their own. It’s been facilitated to a large extent by an historic weakness in the combined Fianna Fail/Fine Gael vote.

In both 1982 elections the old parties sucked up some 85% of the electorate.

Of course that proportion has been slipping ever since, with more of the electorate either opting out or going independent. By 1997 FG/FF pulled in just 67%. The Red C rating puts it at just 50% of the electorate, not far off the 48.3% Sean Lemass accumulated for Fianna Fail in 1961.

The squeeze which depressed Sinn Fein returns in 2007 has now substantially relaxed and is providing them with substantial room to grow.

Yet these elections will provide a useful reality check, as well as much needed campaign fodder for the next general election. Barring unforeseen circumstances, the ship of state is steadying and economic growth is expected to return throughout the year. So Labour may hope to limit their inevitable losses.

In its Dublin heartland Labour faces not just one competitor, but at least two and maybe three. Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein in particular will be scrumming hard the key voters who gave Labour the whip hand in an enlarged city council, with the independent left looking to pick off the rest.

Mary Fitzpatrick (who’s long running spat with Bertie Ahern probably cost her a Dail seat in 2007) looks like favourite to get the FF European nomination there, and could provide a useful Dublin wide standard for the party’s local election candidates.

But the thing about Irish elections of any description is that they tend to be highly localised contests, which makes them hard to predict by extrapolating directly from national polls (see Adrian Cavanagh’s work). Performance may rely as much on a given party’s capacity to put the right campaign in the field than on national ratings.

The Meath East by election result was, as predicted, a disaster for Labour but it also very nearly cost Fine Gael the seat. But most notably, with figures in the Red C poll that only slightly differ from current ratings, it broke down into a clear Fianna Fail/Fine Gael stand off with the FF candidate Thomas Byrne pulling in 33% of the total vote: ie nine points above his party’s national poll rating.

At the very least the local elections may start to clarify where the crunch battlegrounds are likely to be in the Dail elections, which will follow not much more than a year afterwards. “Scary buns“, as the woman says…

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