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Sinn Féin v Fine Gael

By Eoin O’ Malley

At most a year out from the general election, we are beginning to see some shape to what will be the most formative election in recent memory. The 2011 election was called an ‘earthquake election’ by some political scientists because on many metrics we saw remarkable changes. It was one of the most volatile election campaigns in post-war Europe. But it was as remarkable that such a volatile campaign produced such a familiar government.

The Irish did what they were used to doing, kicking out a long-lasting Fianna Fáil government and replacing it with a Fine Gael-Labour coalition.

The current government enjoyed a honeymoon of about 18 months, followed by two years of bad news and poor management. However the last six months have seen good news on most fronts: unemployment is down, employment up, emigration has fallen, tax receipts are up, and there are tentative signs that Fine Gael and Labour are benefiting from this in the polls (see Chart 1).

Given that governments usually suffer a mid-term slump, a recovery a year out from an election, accompanied by economic growth, suggests that the government could be returned, perhaps needing the support of independents to secures a majority. But the government is not loved, and its improved polling might say as much about the qualities of the opposition as it does about Fine Gael and Labour.

To secure re-election the two parties need to do a better job selling their successes, and refuting their failures. The biggest and most obvious failure relates to water charges. Quite how the government managed to make this a touchstones issue is depressing. With the problems of water quality and supply that we’ve seen ubiquitously, most obviously in Galway, nearly everyone agreed that the Victorian water infrastructure needed investment. EU rules meant that its operating costs needed to be funded by consumers. A majority also agreed that people should pay in proportion to use.

But the government regarded water supply as a technical issue that could be delegated to an outside agency. It failed to understand that it was more than a technical issue; it was a new tax and that required a political approach. The tax had to be sold to the public, but Irish Water was designed to supply water not sell a policy.

A less obvious failure, but one that will limit the government’s resurgence, is its lack of support for the group of people who bought houses at the height of the boom and the ones who are trying to buy them now. There has been no attempt to curtail banks from increasing interest rates. Nor is there any concerted attempt massively to increase the supply of housing. The government, as one the largest property owners in the country seems to view increased property prices as a good thing. But it’s damaging Ireland’s recovery because a new generation of people is being asked to pay excessive amounts for a place to live. These costs will increase pressure for pay hikes.

It’s not for nothing that the groups that are least likely to vote for the government are aged between 25 and 45. This is the generation that is least secure about its future, and all parties hoping to make electoral gains will have to make them here.

Fine Gael looks in pretty good shape for the next election. Its message will be simple: recovery and stability. It will frame the choice as between the progress it has made and the risk of a Sinn Féin-led government. It will warn voters that they shouldn’t throw it all away to  populist promises of miracle recoveries. Rather, it can suggest, recoveries are delicate flowers that need to be nurtured. Since Fine Gael has shown itself to be inept at selling its message in the past one would wonder whether it could throw it all away by succumbing to its own populist tendencies.

Sinn Féin will frame the election as a choice between it and austerity. It obviously suits the party that the election will be seen as a choice between it and Fine Gael. Converting opinion poll support into seats may be its biggest challenge. It has two obstacles.  Its supporters, predominantly young, working-class men, don’t vote and it will take its entire formidable machine to mobilise them on the day. It’s also not clear to what extent the party is repulsive to transfers. Certainly by-election results show that in fights between it and anyone else for a last seat you’d have to be on anyone else.

Another danger for Sinn Féin is its choice to tie itself closely to Syriza. If the Greek experiment ends badly, with Syriza making significant concessions to Europe, or worse leaving the Euro, it might come to regret not modelling itself instead on the Scottish Nationalists. In fact we might prepare ourselves for that comparison being made by the party. Of course, unlike the SNP, Sinn Féin doesn’t want to govern yet. It will stay out, hoping to build on successes to solidify its position as a top-two party in the state, hoping that it can lead a government following the election in 2020 or 2021.

Labour’s big mistake was entering government, when it could have been by far the biggest opposition party. Having chosen government, it will depend on personalities and transfers, but it needs to be less apologetic. Apologies indicate that you made a mistake. Labour promised too much in 2011 when it didn’t need to. It must have known that such promises wold leave hostages to fortune on the electoral battlefield, but having failed to protect university fees and child benefit it now thinks that apologising will somehow make it better. It won’t. It just reminds voters.

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Chart 1: Poll trends since the last election

Instead the party should be more aggressive in reminding voters of where Ireland was in 2011 and where it is now. As the smaller party in government it has a tough job. The larger party usually gets to claim the victories, the smaller gets blamed for the defeats. It should mark out its own victories, and paint Labour’s name all over these policies. The problem is identifying the area. Its victories may have been largely negative – in blocking Fine Gael. It should mark out a policy aimed at the 24-45 age group – perhaps related to house-building – and pursue it aggressively. It won’t deliver results before the election, but it could at least secure it a legacy as a positive force in government.

Fianna Fáil is too small to keep doing what it did with remarkable success for eighty years. Dev famously noted that the name Fianna Fáil was suitable because it was untranslatable. No one could pin it down. That worked when it was the party of government: a pragmatic, non-ideological deliverer of results. But Fianna Fáil is still stuck in the high gear the party used when it was a big party. It no doubt feels it is working hard – look at its work on mortgage interest rates – but all that energy appears to generate little traction with public opinion.

Its problem is that it’s hard to see what Fianna Fáil stands for that Fine Gael and Sinn Féin don’t do better or more. You want a responsible party of government? Then Fine Gael is your man. You like non-ideological nationalism centred on the glorification of the ordinary hard-working Irish? Sinn Féin offers that.

Meanwhile Fine Gael and Sinn Féin are conspiring (well not actually conspiring) to destroy Fianna Fáil. For both the elimination of Fianna Fáil should be their goal as it will secure their long-term position. Meanwhile Fianna Fáil is playing it safe, ensuring its own survival, but unless one or both of Fine Gael and Sinn Féin really screw things up Fianna Fáil is just looking at a dignified decline.

Like the other small parties Renua chances of returning TDs depend on marshalling good candidates in particular constituencies. Renua, like Fianna Fáil, has a good name, and a suitably appealing logo. But it has not got over being seen as the anti-abortion party. I suspect it never will. Renua is proof that  everyone wants a new party, until they see it. That’s one of the reasons people like saying they’ll vote for independents. Since they offer few explicit policies voters can project what they think of the world on an independent. You assume that they’ll think what you think. It’s also a nice way of saying ‘I don’t know how I’ll vote’.

The independents won’t do as well as polls suggest. By the time of an election voters start to think about government, but Shane Ross has given them a boost by implying that they could be part of a government.

Whether by luck or design, the election is setting itself up to be Fine Gael versus Sinn Féin. This suits both parties as they become the poles to which voters point depending on their ideological position. We could be looking at a party system that will be in place for a generation. •

Dr Eoin O’Malley is senior lecturer in politics at School of Law and Government, Dublin City University.