Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael supporters have bonded in the face of a common foe

The only certainty about the next election is that nothing is certain

A fascinating aspect of last week’s Irish Times/Ipsos poll was the exposure of a core divide in Irish politics between those who want to see Sinn Féin in office and those who do not. Crucially, the overwhelming majority of Fianna Fáil supporters are in the anti-Sinn Féin camp, which puts a serious dent in the prevailing speculation that a coalition between the two parties is inevitable.

Despite its status as the most popular party, Sinn Féin’s path to power will be an extremely difficult one to negotiate unless it gets enough seats to form a government with the support of small left-wing parties and individuals. With less than 40 per cent of the electorate declaring support for Sinn Féin and its left-wing allies such an outcome seems very unlikely.

The point is reinforced by the fact that less than 40 per cent of the electorate expressed support for “radical change”. The corollary is that TDs representing the other 60 per cent plus of the electorate will almost certainly have the numbers to form a centrist government.

The big question, though, is whether the parties and individuals representing the centre ground have the ability and the will to put together a government that represents the majority desire for either moderate change or no change at all.


For a start that will depend on how the two big parties in the current Coalition perform in the next election. At present Fianna Fáil appears to be in a better place. With consistent support levels at 20 per cent or above in The Irish Times polls over the past two years the party can realistically aim to win 40 seats or more. The high standing of party leader Micheál Martin will be a big advantage in capitalising on that support.

The outlook for Fine Gael is not nearly as good. The party is stuck on just 18 per cent since the beginning of the year despite the fact that Leo Varadkar is now well into his second term as Taoiseach. When taken in tandem with the fact that so many experienced Fine Gael TDs are calling it a day the party may struggle to win more than 30 seats, never mind 40 – unless there is a serious uptick in support.

The two parties will need close to 80 seats between them in the next 174-member Dáil to be sure of retaining power. That is a tall order, but as long as their combined strength is significantly greater than that of Sinn Féin they should be in a better position to put together a government with small parties and/or Independents.

It seems that the only way Sinn Féin will be able to get into power will be in coalition with Fianna Fáil. While this media hobby horse may be favoured by the handful of party TDs with a grudge against Micheál Martin, it is clearly not one that appeals to the bulk of Fianna Fáil supporters.

The Irish Times poll was unambiguous on this point. Asked about the coalition options after the next election just 14 per cent of Fianna Fáil supporters opted for a coalition with Sinn Féin, while 63 per cent favoured another coalition with Fine Gael and the Greens.

Considering the current deep unpopularity of the Greens with many Fianna Fáil voters this level of support for a continuation of the current arrangement is telling. It was interesting to note that Sinn Féin and the Greens tied for first place in the unpopularity stakes, with 31 per cent of voters saying they did not want to see either of the parties in government after the election.

The clear message from the poll is that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael supporters have now bonded and regard Sinn Féin as the common enemy. That should translate into strong transfers between candidates of the two parties, which will be vital in deciding where the final seat will go in many constituencies.

In the past Sinn Féin was the most transfer-repellent party at election times. Given its current level of support it may well be able to pick up transfers from smaller left-wing parties and Independents. On the other hand the number of voters who do not want to see the party in government may ensure that it does not win enough transfers to obtain the kind of seat bonus that normally accrues to the biggest party at election times.

The big unknown of course is what will happen during the campaign itself. For the past 20 years or more the speculation in advance of elections has turned out to be very wide of the mark. Back in 2002 a sudden surge by Fianna Fáil almost delivered the overall majority the pundits had decreed was a thing of the past. Michael McDowell’s climb up the lamp-post in Ranelagh to unveil the poster “Single party Government. No thanks” averted it at the last minute.

At every election since then the outcome indicated by the polls 12 months before the event has turned out to be a mirage. The only certainty is that a surprise of some kind is in store next time round.