Brian Cowen ducks out as Ireland prepares for crisis election

The English writer JB Priestley once compared opinion polls to “children in a garden, digging things up all the time to see how they’re growing.”

While the latest polls in Scotland have unearthed surprisingly good news for the incumbent Alex Salmond, across the Irish Sea it was opposition leader Enda Kenny who woke yesterday morning to discover that his plot has been far more productive than many previously thought.

A Millward Brown Lansdowne poll in yesterday’s Irish Independent put support for Mr Kenny’s Fine Gael on 38 per cent, a share of the vote which, if repeated at the polls on 25 February, would see his party win an unprecedented 78 seats in the Dail, putting it within a whisker of the 83 TDs required for an overall majority.

The potential import of these polling figures has not been lost on many in the Republic of Ireland. In its 77-year history Fine Gael has never ruled without a coalition partner; indeed the party has been out for power for the past 13 years, and hit its electoral nadir as recently as 2002, when it won just 31 seats.

Mr Kenny, who lacks the populism of former taoiseach Bertie Ahern and is a less than impressive public speaker, has also seen his popularity steadily increase during the two weeks of the election campaign.

Nevertheless, Fine Gael party apparatchiks will be wary of placing too much faith in opinion polls: in the run-up to the last general election, in 2007, the party was neck-and-neck with Mr Ahern’s Fianna Fail before falling away badly at the ballot box to finish with 51 seats. Then Fianna Fail formed a government with the assistance of the Green Party and a handful of independents.

This time around, however, the response biases that have tended to slightly under-represent Fianna Fail in Irish polls are unlikely to be present. Having overseen – and even exacerbated – a catastrophic economic collapse in which hundreds of thousands lost their jobs and almost as many have been forced to emigrate, Ireland’s most successful political party looks certain to bear the brunt of the electorate’s opprobrium.

The replacement of the deeply unpopular Brain Cowen with former foreign minister Micheál Martin as leader last month has done little to detoxify the Fianna Fail brand. According to yesterday’s poll, the party of De Valera is set to retain just 13 of the 77 seats it won in 2007.

The outlook for the Labour Party is, arguably, not much better. At 23 per cent of the vote and a projected 42 seats this could be Labour’s best ever performance but it will feel like a defeat for Eamon Gilmore’s party.
Having led in opinion polls for the first time in its history less than six months ago, Labour faces the prospect of either missing out on ministerial office completely or being a very junior partner to a resurgent Fine Gael.

Sinn Fein has also seen its hopes of holding the balance of power on both sides of the Irish border dwindle. The party’s support has fallen badly to around 10 per cent, which, while doubling their representation to 12, would leave Gerry Adams and Co propping up the opposition benches.

The republicans might expect to pick up floating voters over the next week and a half – Gerry Adams was arguably the standout performer in a rather lackadaisical and uninspiring televised leaders’ debate this week, which took place after the Irish Independent poll was conducted – but nothing less than a miracle between now and election day will save the Greens from annihilation. Every poll since the new year predicts that the party will lose all its six seats.

Whether Fine Gael manage to win an overall majority, a notoriously difficult ask under Ireland’s proportional representation system, or is forced to form a coalition, most likely with Labour, the medium-term outlook for Ireland is decidedly gloomy.

According to recent reports in the Wall Street Journal, the €70 billon IMF bailout will only cover about half of Ireland’s financing needs to 2013. Meanwhile, both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have pledged to recapitalise the country’s ailing banks, while joblessness is growing, with over 200,000 households in negative equity and the numbers in mortgage arrears spiralling.

The latest opinion poll has dug up plenty of cheer for Fine Gael but if Mr Kenny does become Taoiseach he is unlikely to find everything so rosy in the government garden.

This article appeared in the Scotsman 17 February