Politics in Flux

Just 23 per cent of voters are happy with the Government’s performance.

Just 23 per cent of voters are happy with the Government’s performance.

That is a very worrying statistic indeed for the Coalition as it continues with its programme of austerity, culminating this year in a severe budget in December.

And, even then, there will be no let up. Further austerity will be the name of the game next year, and then, according to the Tanaiste, Eamon Gilmore, we will begin to see some fiscal light.

It is, in relative terms, early days yet for the Government. But there are growing signs that Fine Gael and Labour are beginning to lose the confidence of the Irish people.

One of the reasons for the slump in the Government’s satisfaction rating is disappointment that election promises made could not be delivered on. Some have been, including restoring the minimum wage, but pledges made by Labour, on education for instance, were pretty well dropped immediately.

However, there is clearly a growing unease among voters about the ability of the Coalition to provide competent government.

Nobody expected an economic miracle from the Coalition. But what was surely rightly demanded was competence.

Voters are looking at the mess made in the introduction of the household charge and water metering and wondering if the Government will be able to manage the big picture properly when they have failed in the introduction of routine measures.

In the recent “Irish Times’’ poll, the bad news for Labour was that it had dropped to 13 per cent, down six points. Traditionally, smaller parties in a Coalition suffer most when times are bad.

The demise of the PDs showed that, as did the wipe out of the Green Party in the last election. Labour is a long established party and would not suffer such a fate, even in a worst case scenario.

But it must be a cause of great worry that voters deprived the party of the traditional bounce in the polls after its annual conference.

Fine Gael, at 33 per cent, down three points, is doing relatively well. But in a general election situation, the party would suffer if the Government in which it was the major party had a mere 23 per cent satisfaction rating.

There must have been a collective sigh of relief within Fianna Fail at its 14 per cent rating, down one point.

When contrasted with the glory days of the party’s electoral success, it is very poor. But given that the poll was taken in the aftermath of the publication of the Mahon Tribunal report, it is not bad at all.

Given the anger of voters, some traditional supporters of the party, and, indeed, members, Fianna Fail could have gone into a sharp decline.

Micheal Martin’s handling of the matter was competent and unequivocal. And that may well have contributed to the fact that the party avoided a total slump.

The old order has changed in Irish politics, and the political norms of the past are no more. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of the tribunal, some commentators were questioning if Fianna Fail had any future.

Bar an extraordinary turn of events, it must surely have a future, given that it has units of the organisation throughout the country. Those units are severely depleted, particularly in urban areas, but there is a basis for recovery if the party finds new candidates for the local elections.

The Soldiers of Destiny must shed the baggage of the past. And that means new faces on posters at the next general election in constituencies where the party has no seat.

The local elections will give an opportunity to those candidates to cut their electoral teeth. Sinn Fein, meanwhile, has been the big winner to emerge from the sense of frustration with the two Government parties and Fianna Fail.

Sinn Fein’s dramatic rise to 21 per cent, up six points, showed that the popular politics of Opposition is working. Labour, in particular, was the recipient of this kind of support in the last Dail.

Sinn Fein has moved on considerably as a party in recent years. The party’s TDs and Senators perform well. The challenge is to move more centre ground in the coming years as a preparation for an inevitable participation in Government.

Was it wise for the party, for instance, to come out so strongly against the fiscal treaty referendum? Nobody is suggesting that this treaty will be the answer to our economic woes. It will not.

But, among other things, it will ensure that we will get another bail out if that sorry day comes to pass. By and large, Europe has been good for Ireland.

Labour, in building the base that Sinn Fein is now securing, opposed Ireland’s entry into the then EEC in the early 1970s. Some of those active in the party at the time are now saying that was a bad mistake.

All parties over the years have used the politics of Opposition to gain seats. That means opposing all harsh measures and making the right kind of populist noises.

But is that enough any more for political parties with a long-term eye on Cabinet seats? Sinn Fein must reflect on that.