Ronan Burtenshaw – Village columnist
For the Irish Left the latest round of polls should make sobering reading.
To understand why they are so depressing you have to look at the trends which have emerged in the polls during recent months. The water charges struggle has been arguably the largest social movement in Irish history, beginning on a small scale in the summer of 2014 and progressing to mass mobilisations in the Autumn. The first Right2Water national demonstration in Dublin on October 11th drew over 100,000 people to the city, while the second on November 1st mobilised in excess of 200,000 across the state.
At the start of 2014 both sets had Fine Gael as the leading party by some way (IPSOS 30%; Red C 28%), with Fianna Fáil (22; 22) and Sinn Féin (21; 18) vying for second and Labour (9; 10) a distant fourth. The independents and others category (18; 22) had remained the same for around a year.
But 2014 proved to be a bad year for the government parties. The GSOC scandal ran into the Labour leadership crisis, before dissatisfaction with the Irish Water project began to build. Around the time of the first mass mobilisation in October this was being felt in the polls. Fine Gael had slipped (24; 26), so had Fianna Fáil (20; 18), while Sinn Féin increased slightly (24; 20) and Labour stagnated (9; 8). The greatest increase went to independents and others (23; 28).
By December, the time of the weekday, marquee Right2Water demonstration in Dublin city centre, the real effect the water charges campaign was having on the polls became clear.
Fine Gael were down significantly. In IPSOS they had fallen from 30% to 19 in a year, in Red C it was a fall from 28% to 21. Their coalition partners Labour were on six percent in both polls, a fall of three and four percent respectively.
Fianna Fáil had not capitalised on this. Their numbers (21; 19) were both down from the place they were in early 2014.
But neither had Sinn Féin taken a great deal of these voters. SF’s numbers were stagnant in IPSOS but did increase by six points to 24% in Red C.
By far the most dramatic increase during this period was in support for independents and others. In December the Irish Times had them on 32% support, far and away the largest category, up 14 points since the turn of the year. Red C had them on 30%, up eight points.
This trend in the polls can be summarised as an anti-establishment surge. Sinn Féin grew slightly, solidifying their position just above the 20% mark, but the significant voter migration went from establishment parties Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour to independents and others, making it the poll leader and even prompting discussion about a government of independents.
This category, of course, included People Before Profit and the Anti-Austerity Alliance, though neither registered more than one percent at any stage.
In the vast majority these new independent voters weren’t defining as Left but were a nebulous grouping, supporting a wide variety of positions, who found a degree of representation in being “independent” of established politics or wanted an alternative to “party politics” as practiced in Ireland.
This anti-establishment surge held up in the early months of 2015. Independents and others led polls by Red C in February (30%) and IPSOS in March (28%). By the latter, however, Fine Gael’s comeback was becoming obvious as they polled level with Sinn Féin on 24%.
But now we come to the bad news.
Since then the effect of the water charges movement on national opinion polls has evaporated pretty much completely.
Seen from December this represents a slow and steady decline of anti-establishment vote and a return to the fold of those Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour voters who had looked elsewhere.
In early May IPSOS had the independent and other category down to 24%, only a point above where it was in October. Today Red C has it at the level it was in September.
A direct comparison of these Red C numbers paints an even clearer picture:
FG 27; FF 23; SF 18; Lab 10; Ind/Oth 23
FG 24; FF 18; SF 21; Lab 7; Ind/Oth 30
FG 28; FF 19; SF 21; Lab 10; Ind/Oth 22
Even more worryingly, compare those May numbers with this:
FG 28; FF 22; SF 18; Lab 10; Ind/Oth 22
A slight improvement for Sinn Féin, a slight fall for Fianna Fáil, but other than that exactly where we were before the biggest social movement in Irish history.
Clearly people in Ireland experimented with mass mobilisations against austerity, rejected the government’s line on water charges and the economy more generally, and even went so far as to express majority support for forces other than Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour for the first time in history.
But my conclusion, given this data, is that they have found the alternatives unconvincing. As a proportion of the population, few new supporters have been won over to a project for political change.
Reasons for optimism
If you, like me, participated in the water charges movement and had hopes that it might translate into a significant challenge to the status quo in the forthcoming general election, these numbers are bad. I won’t sugar-coat them.
But I will point out some reasons for continuing optimism despite them.
First, they remain historically low numbers. The establishment parties (Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour) got over 90% of the vote in every election from 1965 until 1989. The latest Red C poll has their combined vote at 57%, a full third of the electorate below where they once were.
This is also 16% below where they were in the 2011 general election.
Second, Ireland remains the “second least trusting” country in the developed world for institutions of authority, according to Edelman. The least trusted of these institutions is the government, with only one-in-four people trusting it. Politicians are also the least trusted officials in the country at 33%.
The latest Eurobarometer data indicates widespread belief that politics in Ireland is corrupt. In 2014, a full 81% thought corruption was a “serious problem” in Ireland.
Thirdly, faith in the Irish political system was seriously knocked by the economic crisis. The 2013 OECD Government at a Glance survey showed that Ireland had the greatest fall in confidence in this area in the developed world – over 30%.
Finally, outside of polling data, the fact remains that we have seen a historic social movement. Its level of popular support, regular activity and consciousness-raising has been unprecedented. This will remain a threat to power in the country.
But it is very difficult to know how big a threat it is after these latest polls. Unfortunately, research is carried out neither regularly nor widely enough to judge the lasting impact of recent turmoil on the legitimacy of the establishment in Ireland. The means of research production must also be raised – few who would ask such questions publicly can fund the research.
It is highly plausible, given the above sentiments, that support for the political parties is soft and prone to dramatic shifts even during periods of economic recovery, especially if new competition emerges.
But this remains speculation. The available data shows that Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour have survived the water charges movement thus far and recovered to levels of support they enjoyed before it.
It is possible now to imagine not even a Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil coalition, but Fine Gael and Labour being re-elected.
In the face of these facts, it’s time for some serious self-criticism.