Around Leinster House, and the Government departments, public bodies and watering holes clustered around it, there is one topic about which TDs, senators and party apparatchiks of all political hues are obsessed right now: the changes to constituency boundaries that will be recommended by the new Electoral Commission this summer.
It is one of the better long-term decisions by the Irish political elite, to make boundary revisions completely independent of the Government of the day. But that does not mean that politicians don’t try to influence – legitimately, through open submissions – its conclusions. With perhaps 20 new seats in the next Dáil, the stakes are especially high in this revision. And so TDs and parties have been bombarding the Commission with recommendations, all of which would – coincidentally, of course – be to their electoral benefit.
How seriously these are taken is debatable. But politicians are utterly convinced that the addition or subtraction of a few neighbourhoods can make all the difference to them. And they’re right – in individual cases. But the broader outcome of elections depends more on the bigger trends in public opinion.
So how do things stand? Right now the much-anticipated boundary revisions will be made on a political landscape that is broadly stable, if a bit jumpy.
Going on all the published opinions polls this year, the state of the parties looks more or less like this: Sinn Féin is in the early 30 per cents, Fine Gael the early 20s, Fianna Fáil the late teens; the Greens, Social Democrats, Labour are all in the 4-5 per cent bracket. Smaller parties and independents are around 12-15 per cent.
The Government is hardly widely loved; nor is it massively unpopular. There is a strong mood for change coalescing mainly around Sinn Féin, for sure. But the expectation that Sinn Féin will sweep the boards and crush its opponents is not – not yet anyway – borne out by the numbers. The mood for change is tempered by the fact that lots of people don’t want absolutely everything to change. Despite the prominence in our public debate of the promoters of revolutionary change – notably TDs from People Before Profit –, this point of view remains very much a minority allegiance. Perhaps that will change, though I think not.
In summary then, with the combined support for the Government parties at about 45 per cent, the combined support of Sinn Féin and other Opposition parties at something similar, and independents picking up the rest, the political and electoral future is up for grabs. The shape of the next Government is yet to be settled.
If I’m right about this, some important conclusions inevitably present themselves. One in particular: Sinn Féin still has to win it. The Government’s shortcomings will be not enough on their own to deliver power. Sinn Féin will have to convince enough people that it will be better.
The party, of course, realised this long ago, and so began to consciously manage the difficult balancing act of promising change while reassuring people that the things they like – a strong economy, a large welfare state, a stable society – won’t change. Success has been mixed so far. My guess is that the only way to manage this challenge is to be clear about what the party would do in Government. As two examples demonstrated this week, that is a difficult path to walk.
The first example was when Conor Gallagher revealed in The Irish Times that a secret agreement between the Irish and British governments, under which RAF jets police Russian intrusions into Irish airspace, has been in operation since the early days of the Cold War. It was quite the scoop. The Government refused to confirm or deny, citing national security concerns (pull the other one; I think the Russians know that the jets buzzing them aren’t Irish). But ministers insisted that if there were any arrangements, they were fully in accordance with Irish neutrality. Of course they are. That’s why they’re kept secret.
Sinn Féin immediately demanded a briefing on all this, a request which at the time of writing had not been responded to. What I found interesting, though, was that the party didn’t immediately call for the cessation of the arrangement. Subsequent inquiries, as we report today, revealed that the party has abandoned its commitment to withdraw from the EU’s military co-operation programme (Pesco) and the Nato Partnership for Peace. This is, depending on how you look at these things, a sensible adjustment in the party’s foreign policy, or a shameful abandonment of its principles. Either way, it is clearly done with one eye on being in Government. It is not the boldest prediction you will ever hear to say we can expect more of this.
The second example on the other story of the week: the sky-high costs of groceries, and what the Government might do about it. Sinn Féin was vocal and effective in challenging the Coalition for its talk-loudly-and-carry-a-small-stick approach. But when asked “what would you do?” by a tenacious Sarah McInerney on RTÉ’s Drivetime radio programme, Sinn Féin’s Louise O’Reilly was suddenly uncharacteristically coy. The best that McInerney could get out of her was: “We need to set targets”. What exactly these might be, or how they could be enforced, remained unexplained.
Coming up with worked-out plans for reform that could actually be implemented in Government and then communicating them is a lot harder than merrily lambasting the incumbents at every turn. But ultimately it is the only thing guaranteed to translate buoyant opinion polls in opposition into a true mandate for Government. Sinn Féin has clearly grasped this. Expect much reassuring of the base that their leaders have not sold out, as the party inches towards the governing centre.