In December the political system starts to run out of steam and look fondly towards the festive break. The Oireachtas finished up on December 17th for a month but given the relentlessly changing Covid-19 state of affairs both at home and abroad, 2021 was another year when there was no complete downing of tools for Government. If Covid wasn’t keeping them awake over Christmas, then the latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll surely did, as it shows Sinn Fein’s popularity rise to a record level in Ireland now. The party has, according to the poll, significantly stretched its lead over Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to 35%, which is 3% higher since the last poll in October. This new position puts it 15% ahead of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, who are both sitting at a very meagre 20%. These figures are down 2% for Fine Gael since October and no change for Fianna Fáil. The third leg of Government, the Green Party, is at 5% (down 2); Labour 4% (no change) and Independents/others 15% (up 3).
The poll was in a week that the Government announced plans for enhanced supports for businesses for December 2021 and January 2022 due to the new Covid-19 restrictions, meaning that over €20 billion in direct supports has been provided to help the economy and households. There was also €45m payments rolling out to farmers, a €50m support package for the Live Performance Sector, and the announcement that the Pandemic Unemployment Payment will reopen for workers who lose their jobs as a result of the new restrictions. As the Tánaiste pointed out this week, the Department of Finance estimates Government will have spent €48 billion helping businesses and workers by the end of 2022. And to tackle to rising cost of living, and in particular energy prices, there was a leaked decision to give a €100 payment per household to issue in January. But none of this seems to have resonated with the public enough to improve the ratings of any of the three Coalition parties.
There are two numbers that the Government will cling to for reassurance in this poll. Firstly that their overall satisfaction rating of has fallen by just 3 points and still remains above 40%. The second is that when voters were asked about its performance on Covid-19 there was a very a clear majority (57%) responding that the Government had done a good job, against 29% saying otherwise. However, worth noting this was 74% in favour in October. These numbers are not strong enough though to allay the fears of many back bencher TDs who will clearly see the writing on the wall for the next election – as do the media who many feel, treat Sinn Fein as the Government in waiting.
Over the festive period, Government party leaders will have been scratching their heads as to how the message and appeal of Sinn Fein is resonating so strongly with the public. Unlike in the run up to the 2020 General Election when media and politicians saw the rise of Sinn Fein as being a short term spike, 2021 has shown us that the support for the party is sustained and moving upwards at each poll. A very concerning trend for both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil is where Sinn Fein are getting their support from. Traditionally they were seen as being strong in mainly working class and some rural areas. This trend was bucked in 2020, and where sometimes we see the public give the Government a kicking during an election and then support returning to them again after a period, this is not the case with the Irish public today.
Instead we see the support for Sinn Fein now also drawn from older, middle-class voters, those aged 35 and upwards, and 27% of middle-class voters. This is a significant Rubicon for Sinn Fein to cross, if they can sustain this level of support and momentum, the narrative around the Government in waiting will become a stark reality and leave the two traditional governing parties with some very difficult decisions to make.
Having crossed their own historical Rubicon 18 months ago and form a Government together with the Green Party, the next decision for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will be whether they more formally join together and form a strong alignment of some degrees to try and block Sinn Fein taking power, or for Fianna Fáil in particular, to acknowledge that they may end up going into Government with Sinn Fein. Another factor to take into account is that both parties may have a change of Leader going into the next election. Michéal Martin is facing internal strife continuously during his term of Taoiseach with clear leadership contenders circling. Leo Varadkar faces his own internal issues as the party awaits the outcome of the Garda investigation into a leak of document a while back. It is widely expected that the outcome of the investigation could have significant political implications. This, coupled with the reality that in his 4 years of being Leader of Fine Gael, Mr Varadkar has struggled to fulfil the electoral success he promised his supporters would have believed were possible mean that his has an uphill struggle ahead of him for 2022 also.
2022 will be a fascinating year in Irish politics.
Check out our previous article in this series on the French EU presidency which coincides with their presidential elections – The Political Year Head 2022: The French Presidencies