The widespread assumption that Ireland is on course for a shift to radical politics after the next general election looks pretty wide of the mark, if the results of the latest Eurobarometer poll are anything to go by. The poll, conducted in all 27 EU countries in January and February, reveals that Irish voters are actually far more middle of the road in their political leanings than the people of any of the other member states.
When asked to place themselves on the left-right political spectrum, 59 per cent of respondents in Ireland identified themselves as in the centre compared with an EU average of 39 per cent. A quarter of Irish voters see themselves as left wing, about the EU average, but just 10 per cent identify as right wing, less than half the average.
On the face of it, the substantial majority identifying themselves as being in the political centre should be a boost to the traditional parties of government, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. They have led every government of the State for the past century and can claim credit for policies that have made it a stable and wealthy democracy.
It is not as simple as that, though. A succession of polls has shown the two main parties of government between them polling considerably less than 59 per cent. So where are the other 15 per cent or more of the voters who consider themselves centrists? One answer is that many voters who support Independents, particularly in rural Ireland, regard themselves as being in the political centre, but that is not the whole story.
The other big anomaly is that if just 25 per cent of the electorate identify as left wing, why does Sinn Féin and a variety of smaller left-wing parties and groups consistently get a combined support of more than 40 per cent in polls?
One clue as to the discrepancy provided in the Eurobarometer poll is that housing is regarded by 52 per cent of voters as the key concern in this country, while just 8 per cent of voters across the EU see it as the most important issue. Given that Ireland is by no means the only western country with a housing shortage, the difference in perception is striking.
Across the rest of the EU, inflation/the cost of living is the biggest issue, closely followed by the international situation. While the cost of living does feature in second place, in Ireland only 4 per cent of people in this country regard the international situation as an important issue.
There is a huge sense of optimism in this country about the future of the EU, an optimism that is not shared across the union
It is also striking that just 10 per cent of Irish voters see themselves as right wing, in contrast with an EU average of 21 per cent. It seems that the term is regarded as a pejorative description in the Irish political context, which would indicate that claims of a rise in right-wing sentiment on immigration are much exaggerated.
When it comes to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Irish people are much more satisfied with their government’s performance, and the EU’s reaction, than people in most other countries. A total of 78 per cent approve of the Government’s approach compared with an EU average of 55 per cent; while 76 per cent approve of the EU reaction, compared with an EU average of 56 per cent.
These findings indicate that the Government’s unequivocal response to the Russian invasion and support for the strongest possible sanctions are in tune with public opinion. By contrast, the anti-Nato rhetoric of the hard left expressed in both the Dáil and the European Parliament appeals to a tiny minority.
The same is true of attitudes to the EU itself, with Irish people having a more positive view of the union and its institutions than the people of any other member state. There is also a huge sense of optimism in this country about the future of the EU, an optimism that is not shared across the union.
On this topic a notable feature of the poll is that people in France are the second most pessimistic about the future of the EU, almost on a par with Greece. Given the current travails of President Emmanuel Macron and the fact that Marine Le Pen is waiting in the wings for another tilt at the presidency, her victory would raise serious questions about the future of the union.
From an Irish point of view, the striking thing is how supportive a substantial majority of people are about the line being adopted by the Government and the EU, not only to the invasion of Ukraine but to a range of other issues, including moves to renewable energy.
All in all, the poll shows that the Government parties are in tune with public opinion on most big issues, with the big exception being the failure to resolve the housing crisis. That will undoubtedly be a critical factor in the outcome of the next election. The challenge facing the Coalition will be to show some improvement in housing but also to focus the minds of voters on the wider implications of a Sinn Féin-led government.