Opinion polls and civil war politics

By Shane Reynolds, PhD Student, Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Limerick

This weekend’s Sunday Business Post/Red C Opinion Poll, a year on from the first case of Covid in Ireland and slightly over a year since the 2020 general election, follows trends that have become apparent over the last year.

The Irish Polling Indicator that combines poll results identifies that the emerging battle ground in Ireland is primarily focused around a two-way challenge between Sinn Féin, who are averaging 29.5% of support, and Fine Gael with a polling average of 27%. Despite winning the most seats in February 2020 support for Fianna Fáil has drifted back to an average of 15%, which is below the party’s record low of 17.4% first preference votes received in the post-crash election of 2011.

Source: Irish Polling Indicator

The post-election shift in fortunes of the two civil war parties can be attributed to strategic decisions taken while forming their first historic coalition where Fine Gael retained control over economic ministries and Fianna Fáil accepted the challenge of dealing with issues of health, education and housing head on despite the predicted economic challenges the pandemic would present.

Opinion polls haven’t assessed the popularity of all ministers. Nonetheless, the Taoiseach’s decision to place first time ministers in charge of the significant departments of Health and Education does not appear to be paying off, with both receiving increasingly low levels of support from the public as support for the Government’s overall handling of the pandemic also appears to be sliding.

Making predictions on the timing and focus of a general election is always a risky endeavour. However, the Government’s plan to link removal of pandemic restrictions to the vaccination programme suggests that the full economic impact of any return to normality in the health, education and construction sectors will not be felt until the second half of 2021 at the earliest. This coupled with the poll results for Fianna Fáil appear to offer them no incentive for calling an election prior to handing the reigns of the highest office back to Fine Gael in late 2022.

The strategic choice on when an incoming Fine Gael Taoiseach may seek to call an election is likely to be based upon whether their position in opinion polls remain high and how rapidly the economy is recovering from the effects of the pandemic. A rapid return to growth may incentivise an early poll, while a slower recovery could elicit a more cautious response in the hope that the nation’s economic prospects and the ability to claim credit for them would encourage Fine Gael to allow the Government to continue in office towards a full term.

The Irish electoral landscape has become increasingly volatile over the last decade and the shift in support for Sinn Féin between the 2019 Local Elections and the 2020 General Election demonstrates how rapidly events can impact outcomes.

However, if the polling trends continue it is reasonable to expect that the next election will be a direct conflict between Sinn Féin and Fine Gael, at least in part due to their combative (social) media focus upon each other. This has served to further side-line Fianna Fáil as a competitor, although their current polling figures suggest that they will retain a significant position in any post-election coalition negotiations.

Outside of management of the pandemic, contrasting priorities between public service investment and trust in managing an economic recovery indicate potential fertile ground for competition between the Sinn Féin and Fine Gael, which again would fit within longer term trends that suggest the main cleavage within Irish politics has been progressively moving away from the civil war to a left vs. right form of conflict.

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