What the latest poll really says about the polarised nature of Irish politics?

As some of you will have noticed I have more or less given up reporting the polls in the south. Apart from a few blips, it’s pretty much been the same for much of the last 2/3 years. This morning’s Irish Times poll is no exception.

Bear in mind that the error margin is -/+ 2.8% and there is no change here. These are the parameters of the election. When you factor in the randomising nature of PR STV multi member constituency everything is likely to play out within 3/4% of of these placings.

No one is going to make it to the top figure needed to form a government on their own.

Labour and Fine Gael will need a few good days at the races to do that on their own. On a bad day they’ll likely form a minority government with the passive help of the Soc Dems, Renua and maybe a handful of independents.

The one thing you can bet against is that Fianna Fail will not be throwing in with Fine Gael anytime before hell freezes over. As Johnny points out in the Goss this morning, they see each other as the thing that best defines them in the voter’s mind.

Nor indeed will Sinn Fein be throwing in with anyone else unless they get their nose ahead. Despite some favourable seat projections that’s not on this time. Their substantive challenge is to get as close to FF in seat totals as they possibly can.

IT Poll age cohortsThe real gain the last five years is not necessarily the seats they win now but the huge bulge in the younger under 35s (and singletons) they’ve accumulated, suggesting there may be deferred benefits for them over time to collect on.

Fianna Fail, of course, are seeking to make as much green water as they can manage: one to get in the fresh new parliamentary talent they so desperately need; and two to regain their capacity to speak to and from middle Ireland with a modicum of authority.

Past trends suggest they should benefit from a boost when people vote when actual power rather than protest is in question but they also suggest no one’s biggest ambitions will be realised.

From the early tetchy discussions on RTE and Newstalk it looks like the debates will be messy and hard to follow, featuring a choice between big (uncosted) promises for the future just to catch the eye of the floating voter, and pragmatic caution.

To be fair to the Government parties, not only did they inherit a fiscal mess, they also inherited very low trust in governments and politicians. Within months (having done very little right or wrong) their approval ratings were amongst the lowest recorded.

Continuity will surely count for something especially when the global recovery and corporation tax returns are showering money heavily into the national treasury. But the low ratings reflect both an atomisation of old loyalties, and poor trust in the party model per se.

They also suffer that problem most governments have in trying to objectively assay their own performance and then sell it effectively. Public muddles over the extent of ‘the fiscal space’ available to them going forward is a good example of that.

It may also explain why there’s little momentum for them here.

The residual popularity of independents is indicative of a deeper function that has been rife within the Irish electoral system, at least since the defanging of local government in 1977 (enacted by Jack Lynch but which all parties connived at).

As Noel Whelan noted last Friday:

The retention of support from party backbenchers in our system is built on a constant flow of representations from, and rewards to, constituencies, agreed on an ongoing basis with Ministers.

Intense localism and a distorted allocation of resources on the basis of “my constituency first” criteria is not solely a feature of deals between governments and Independents.

Anyone who doubts this need only look at the avalanche of localised announcements pumped out by Government politicians in recent days. All are seeking to maximise their local leverage before the election campaign kicks off.

IT Poll over timeThe media may be dismissive of the role of the independents, but the main parties are certainly not. Their role in deciding who got a seat in the European Parliament and who did not was vital. And any party taking them lightly will find their ambitions thwarted by it.

I doubt the electorate are seriously auditioning for a new government this time out. That may prove a help to Labour when it comes to the crunch. I suspect they are more likely on the lookout for an effective watchdog.

In First World War years, we’re at about a year behind the current centenary celebrations and it’s about 1915.  And all pretty messy.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty