Will opinion polls really sink Cowen?

Some of the political correspondents writing over the last week are reading a great deal into every government minister’s’ utterance. Micheál Martin made an extremely banal comment when asked on Newstalk about the Cowen incident;

“I think we all have to reflect in terms of how the conference was organised, in terms of communications issues and so on like that. Clearly we have lessons to learn and we will work on that particular agenda in terms of future events and future communications strategies.”

This was then characterised as a ‘stern rebuke’ and that he was ‘piling the pressure’ on Cowen. Taking it completely out of context, even the use of the word reflect was interpreted as code for a resignation call. Similar misreadings were made of other ministers’ comments.

Now journalists are looking to the expected opinion polls to decide Cowen’s fate. It’s predicted that Fianna Fáil TDs will reflect on those poll results before deciding what to do. But what do they expect? I suspect FF TDs are sensible enough to know that the polls will hardly be good. They were already bad and are most unlikely to improve, and unless there’s a complete collapse in FF support most likely nothing will happen. If FF TDs were not scared into replacing him by the results of the local elections, why would they be moved by an opinion poll?

There are other factors that FF TDs will need to take into account. 1. Taoisigh tend not to give up their job too easily and so you’d expect a fight. FF leaders have some incumbency advantages – it’s not that easy to get rid of them.  Does Fianna Fáil want to risk a Fine Gael-style failed coup? 2. Who would replace Cowen? If Lenihan is unwilling to take on the job, none of the other candidates might inspire confidence. Would backbench TDs prefer anyone other than Cowen? More likely they have an opinion, but the list of would be successors is lengthening which also increases the uncertainty of who might replace Cowen (if anyone).  3. Would it make any difference? Are people disappointed with the government because of Cowen or because of the state of the economy? A new leader might get a small boost/ honeymoon, and may be a better communicator, but the underlying problems won’t go away that easily. 4. Would there be an immediate election? Many people say that they could not have a replacement without an election, because you’d have two taoisigh without any mandate. I’m unclear why this is an issue – there certainly isn’t a legal impediment. But sometimes when something is said enough times by enough people it becomes self-fulfilling. In any case a new Taoiseach may want to avoid being blamed for the almost inevitably poor FF performance and so might call an immediate election, thus securing his/ her leadership of the party after that election. But this mightn’t suit those FF backbenchers who would lose their seats. Poor opinion polls results don’t usually cause you to rush headlong to an election; why would they do so in this case?

Eoin O’Malley (20 September 2010)

4 thoughts on “Will opinion polls really sink Cowen?

  1. It seems we have learnt nothing from the last three years with the talk that it the job of Taoiseach is Brian Lenihan’s for the ‘taking’ with absolutely no regard to what policies he might pursue for what vision he has for the country and all because he is apparently ‘intelligent’ and claims to have had cancer, weren’t we told Cowen and Ahern were intelligent too?

    Replacing Cowen will result in a general election and that will result in a hold range of FF TDs losing their seats, most likely those who instigated the coup because FF voters will punish the disloyal before the incompetants every time.

    The media are failing in their role to ask if Lenihan, and the others who might stand if Cowen were to go, is fit for office as Lenihan will be taking decisions that affect us long after he leaves office on his bullet proof pension and his health is part of that process.

    What policies would he pursue and why did he support Bertie Ahern so strongly, where were his ethics then, why did he think it was acceptable for a decision to bail out his friends in Anglo should be taken in the early hours with ministers being woken up and asked to make a split second decision to agree to it, oh there I’ve answered my own question.

  2. A classic political cliché states the only opinion poll that matters is the one on election day. Fianna Fail is striving to delay that day of reckoning for as long as possible. Mr Cowen said his behaviour in Galway was not meant to be disrespectful to the Irish people. But he is being disrespectful to them by refusing to set by-elections dates for the three vacant Dail seats. Mr Cowen was not elected Taoiseach after leading FF in a victorious General Election campaign. He was put forward by a minority group in the Dail (FF), and then selected for the post in a Dail action after arrangements with other politicians. Mr Cowen has mentioned he has a job of work to do; the initial phase of that job should be to call a General Election. Then we will clearly know what the public’s opinion is of Mr. Cowen and company.

  3. What I also find interesting about the previous week’s discourse is that some say Martin is reluctant to go because he was a bad health Minister, and that this might hurt his chances in a coup. Cowen openly denigrated that department and it didn’t stop him taking the top job.

    I think the difficulty here is that Cowen has not anointed a successor the way Bertie did for him or Haughey did for Ahern. Challengers need to be fairly confident of victory I think, especially after the botched FG coup.

  4. Well, anyone who makes a stand faces a number of issues.

    Within FF they face the charge that they were disloyal and that charge in FF eyes is even worse than being incompetent, no matter how incompetent the person who aim to replace has been.

    Then there is the issue of no mandate, there’s no legal reason why another Taoiseach can’t be imposed without an election but the reality is they would lack the authority to do much until the next election has to be held, a person who knifed a FF leader and caused an election that loses FF power will face the wrath of FF voters, again due to the lack of loyalty and if those people think FF is a on a hiding to nothing they’ll stay at home and make the kicking even worse – like those FGers who just didn’t bother to vote FG in 2002 – then again will the FFers learn the lesson from 2002 about how urgent FF will need votes from anyone.

    Then there is the other issue that once a person declares themselves they will be – should – be subjected to a level of scrutiny they have never had to face, Martin, Ahern, Hanafin and in particular Lenihan have costed along during their careers. We are told Lenihan is the man to beat but why? Who decided his track record makes him better than anyone else given he was as much part of the cronyism of Ahern/Cowen as anyone else.

    Does poor health absolve him of all that? Then there’s the health issue – the people have a right to know the full details and Lenihan simply doesn’t have the luxury of claiming it is off limits or personal when he is making decisions which have such long term consequences for everyone and those still to come.

    THe media have a chance to gain back some of the respect and credit they lost by their fawning over Ahern and Cowen and never putting either of their records under scrutiny and just lying down and accepting the script presented to them by FF about whose turn was next, there are signs the media are going to do the same for Lenihan and that is deeply wrong.

    If Lenihan and others want to be Taoiseach they need to justify such ambition and back it up and defend their record.

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