25 December 2005

What was really important beyond ‘Punch-and-Judy’ politics

Sunday Business Post

25 December 2005
By Pat Leahy

When Irish historians remember the year 2005, the IRA's decision to decommission its arms and retire for good will surely be the most significant event.

What other event stands beside it for political and historic significance? The Meath and Kildare by-elections? Michael McDowell's continual attacks on Sinn Féin and other characters he considers suspicious? Martin Cullen's travails? The resignation of junior minister Ivor Callely? Eddie Hobbs' Rip-Off Republic? Hardly. Most of these will be quickly forgotten.

And yet the IRA's move has generated scarcely a ripple among the public. It's one of the great paradoxes of Irish political life that an issue which consumes so much time and intellectual effort at the highest levels of government is one that voters don't appear to get worked up about, especially as the Good Friday Agreement recedes into history.

Ask any group of voters - either focus groups or larger opinion polls - what are the issues that concern them. Most of the time, you'll get the same answers - health, crime, the economy and, lately, value for money. But hardly anyone ever mentions the North.

The republican movement's early-year purgatory over the Northern Bank raid and the murder of Robert McCartney threw the peace process into crisis and dominated the national debate for months. It dominated politics, yet it didn't appear to have any lasting impact on voters.

This divergence between political debate and the everyday concerns of people is a growing feature of Irish politics, and was evident throughout the year. Political crises come and go, generating much sound and fury, but have little lasting effect on politics as perceived by voters.

So the best way to look at what was significant during the year is to go beyond what new Tory leader David Cameron called “Punch and Judy politics'‘, and see what really affected our politics at a deeper level. So when voters get their childcare payments, social welfare cheques and wage slips in 2006, will they really be thinking that the budget was a disaster for the government because Ivor Callely was fired on the same day?

It's often about trying to see the difference between the latest political row and actual substance. Because, ultimately, it's the voters who decide what matters. So what did really matter this year?

Sinn Féin surge abates

First, back to the North and Sinn Féin. This year saw the end - at least for now - of the rise in Sinn Féin's electoral support.

A succession of opinion polls published in this and other newspapers confirmed that roughly half the voters were quite hostile to Sinn Féin. Then there's about 40 per cent who are softer and willing to listen to what the party is saying - peace processors, if you like.

And then the party has a lock on about 10 per cent of the electorate.

This section was more or less unaffected by the storm over the Northern Bank raid and the McCartney murder - but was also unaffected (in the other direction) by the IRA's retirement and decommissioning.

This levelling out of Sinn Féin's support may turn out to have been one of the more significant developments on the domestic political stage during 2005. Since the peace process took on a tangible form with the ceasefires of the mid-1990s, Sinn Féin has steadily increased its public support: 2.6 per cent in the 1997 general election; 3.5 per cent in the 1999 locals; 7 per cent in the 2002 general election; 8 per cent in the 2004 locals; and 11 per cent in last year's European elections.

This seemingly inexorable rise conferred on Sinn Féin that most valuable of political assets - momentum. It also had the effect of terrifying the living daylights out of the party's competitors, Fianna Fáil and Labour, in working class areas, especially in Dublin.

The warnings of a vocal band of hyperventilating anti-Sinn Féin commentators were reaching an apocalyptic pitch, and it was widely assumed that Sinn Féin's assumption of the third-place slot and participation in government was imminent and inevitable.

Then, during the past year, the onward march of Sinn Féin's polling numbers slowed and then halted. It's a 10 per cent party, certainly, and will gain seats at the next election at that level, but the party's rivals are not as scared as they used to be. There were other significant polling movements during the year, but it's important to realise what polls aren't, as much as what they are. Polls aren't a crystal ball that enable us to see, Mystic Meg-like, the result of an election in 18 months' time.

Instead, they describe the existing landscape accurately. Over a period of time, this enables us to see trends, extrapolate likely movements and make certain observations. So what were the movements in political support during 2005?

Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil shuffle

In general terms, Fine Gael stole the momentum from Fianna Fáil.

In 2004, Bertie Ahern responded to his caning at the hands of the voters by dumping Charlie McCreevy, rebranding his government as “socially caring'‘ and tacking to the left. Fr Sean Healy, champion of the poor and a director of the justice commission of the Conference of the Religious in Ireland, was welcomed - through gritted teeth in the case of many ministers and backbenchers - to Inchydoney.

Brian Cowen's first budget, which was heavily slanted towards lower earners and those on social welfare, completed the picture.

It's not certain, of course, that these events directly caused the increase in support for Fianna Fáil shown by the polls in the early part of this year. But the poll surge certainly followed the socialist conversion and many around the Taoiseach hold the post hoc ergo propter hoc view - that because the increase in support happened after the rebranding, it happened because of the rebranding.

By March of this year, various polls were measuring a dramatic recovery in support for Fianna Fáil, with Fine Gael languishing and Labour becalmed only slightly above their general election level of 11 per cent.

“Fianna Fáil recovers as opposition gains come up short,” said The Sunday Business Post. The Irish Independent was characteristically bullish: “Coalition is powering to a third term,” the newspaper blasted on page one. Then a funny thing happened. The government tripped over in two by-elections in Meath and Kildare, one providing a badly-needed boost to Enda Kenny and the other confirming the Irish voting public's enduring attachment to independent candidates.

As spring turned into summer, the constant drip of bad news from government - nursing home charges, chaos in accident and emergency wards, Celia Larkin turning up on a state board - chipped away at government support. Then, in August, came the single biggest political media event of the year: Eddie Hobbs' Rip Off Republic television programmes.

The power of ‘Hobbsvision'

Chirpy Corkman Eddie Hobbs lambasted the “rip-off'‘ culture of modern Ireland, drawing huge audiences and blanket, adoring coverage throughout the media.

Never mind that popular perceptions of steeply rising grocery prices were simply wrong - one survey showed that while people believed that grocery prices had increased by 32 per cent between 2002-2004, they had actually risen by just 6 per cent - Hobbs tuned directly into public dissatisfaction on the issue. He triggered a kind of tipping point.

Showing its ability to make the worst of a bad situation, Fianna Fáil lashed out at Hobbs. The party might as well have criticised Santa Claus.

A series of opinion polls in the autumn and again at the start of December confirmed that support for the government and for Fianna Fáil had plummeted. The research was clear about why: 90 per cent of respondents in a poll told The Sunday Business Post that “rip-off Ireland'‘ was a reality; three-quarters of them blamed the government.

Irish people are more demanding than ever, it seems: the richer the country gets, the more they expect. The growth of this “affluent grumpiness'‘ was one of the most striking features of this year. In contrast to Fianna Fáil's plummeting fortunes, Fine Gael was the biggest beneficiary of this mood - gaining the sort of support levels (27-28 per cent) that delivered its brilliant local and European election results in 2004, and which had not been seen by the party at a general election since it won 54 seats in 1997.

Party handlers were cock-a-hoop, especially when a close examination of the polling numbers revealed that, among those voters who say they are absolutely certain to vote, the party was almost as popular as Fianna Fáil.

Good media, effective attacks and government unpopularity have put Fine Gael into a position where it can realistically expect to challenge Fianna Fáil for the leadership of the next government.

But the party has yet to show that it can maintain a lock on this support. It hasn't produced a strong policy platform and its leader is not bringing people to his party.

The great worry for Fine Gael will be that, if Fianna Fáil could stage a recovery in early 2005 on the back of generous budget and high consumer confidence, then it could do the same next year.

In other words, they fret that mid-term unpopularity for the government is one thing, but when it comes to an election what if it is the economy - and only the economy - stupid?

Nonetheless, 2005 was a good year for Fine Gael, following an equally good 2004. Setting out in 2002, Fine Gael's leader Enda Kenny and the impressive backroom team he has assembled would be pleased with having got this far by the start of 2006. A lot done, and so forth.

Labour leader Pat Rabbitte's supporters say his glass is half full, while his opponents say it's half empty. Rabbitte was undoubtedly strengthened by a comprehensive internal victory at his party conference in May, endorsing his “anti-Fianna Fáil'‘ strategy for the next general election.

In reality, however, a defeat would have spelled the end of his leadership, and nobody in the party had the stomach for that.

It's arguable that Rabbitte's strategy to promote an alliance with Fine Gael has principally benefited Fine Gael; Labour handlers have said that the alternative government is making important strides forward.

Rabbitte and Kenny's great achievement so far has been to ensure that, come the next election, there will be a clear alternative to a Fianna Fáil-led government. But it's also clear that, at the moment, not enough of the public are convinced that the alternative is desirable.

However, nowhere near enough people are prepared to endorse Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats for a third term. Indeed, on current numbers, Fianna Fáil would have a disastrous election and Labour would have a mediocre result - and both would end up in government together, such are the vagaries of a proportional representation system.

What next?

So how will the numbers look this time next year?

A lot of political activity in 2006 will take place below the radar of the media and the public. Constituency matters have to be sorted out, and candidates finalised.

There's always a lot of colour in this aspect of electoral preparations, and certain questions stand out - how will the Taoiseach address the threat of Mary Lou McDonald in Dublin Central? Will Michael D Higgins give it one more lash in Galway West? This work has to be finished in the next few months.

Parties will also spend a lot of time and money in the coming months designing their general election campaigns - researching, polling, testing slogans, key tactics, and tweaking the general strategy.

Already the general outline of the two major blocs is clear: “change, not more of the same'‘ versus “it's the economy, stupid'‘.

Politics in a time of plenty is a subtle art. The Taoiseach observes - okay, complains - frequently that he is the envy of his European counterparts, but can't get a break at home.

Even last week, a Eurobarometer poll showed that Irish people were the happiest in Europe. But we certainly like to keep our politicians on their toes.

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