Fine Gael hang on to Support, but will the Public Give them a Wake Up Call at the Local/European Elections?

Published by: Richard Colwell


What a couple of weeks Fine Gael have had in the run up to this poll. The Nurses Strike and the overrun in costs for the Children’s Hospital, have put the government under pressure not seen for some time, and certainly not since the 8th Amendment referendum last May.

After Leo Varadkar took over the leadership of Fine Gael in June 2017 and thus became Taoiseach, the party had seen a generally upward trend in support (with some wobbles, such as when Frances Fitzgerald was forced to step down in late 2017), right up to May 2018 when the 8th Referendum was held.

That trend saw the party move from support levels at 27% initially, to grow to support levels at 34% in May 2018.   A strong stance and apparently successful negotiation on Brexit, helped the party to retain this strong level of support throughout the rest of 2018, but there will be some within the party that might regret not having gone for an election during that time.

Inevitably, the halo effect of the Referendum result and the positive influence of a young and dynamic team would not last forever.  At the same time the positive vibes around the Brexit negotiations have also fallen away somewhat, as the likelihood of a no deal Brexit looms closer than ever.  As a result, support for the party has started to wane, dropping back to 32% in Jan and 31% in Feb.

Some might argue that it is surprising they haven’t fallen further this month, given the heat on the government over the Nurses Strike and the motion of no confidence in Simon Harris.  Certainly, Sinn Fein have benefited from their robust attacks on the government during this time gaining 5% in one month.

So why hasn’t Fine Gael support fallen back further?  It feels very much that this is all about Brexit and the economy.  So far, the government appears to have done a good job of protecting Ireland’s position and building strong alliances within the EU 27.  There is also no doubting the fact that the Irish economy is doing well, even if many voters don’t feel this personally.   Certainly until the Brexit situation is finalised, voters are not inclined to rock the boat.

Of course, that means the party is to some extent at the mercy of the UK Government.  A no deal Brexit would be as much a disaster for Fine Gael, as it would be for the country as a whole.  While an orderly Brexit that avoids the disaster scenario, could see the party benefit from a bounce in support, if even for a short time.

It is also clear that many TD’s within Fianna Fail are fed up with the Confidence and Supply position.  This latest period will again annoy them further, because while Fianna Fail were strong in their attacks on the government and Simon Harris, due to C&S and the Brexit situation, they were not able to follow through.  As a result, while they do see gains in support to 24% from allow last month, it is Sinn Fein that has taken most of the credit with 5% gains.  It is hard to see how the Confidence and Supply agreement will survive its term, if a result on Brexit is forthcoming in the next few months.

One thing that might hold up any General Election however is the fact that Local and European Elections are due to take place in May this year.  Most parties would agree that they wouldn’t want to see a general election at the same time as this reduces exposure considerably.  So, can General Election voting patterns in polls, tell us much about what might happen at the Local and European Elections?

The answer is that while they may give some indication, how a voter says they will vote in a General Election, is often somewhat different to how they might vote in the Local or European Elections.   Just before the Local and European elections in 2015, RED C General Election vote intentions saw Fine Gael at 25-26% and Fianna Fail at around 20-21%.   But voters don’t vote the same way in Local and European elections. Firstly, voters are less likely to turn out; secondly the candidate becomes much more important locally than the party; and finally, voters sometimes see them as a no risk opportunity to give the government a bit of a kicking.

In 2014, Fianna Fail actually ended up securing 25% of the first preference votes cast in the end, some way ahead of their GE polling.  While both Fine Gael and Labour, the government parties at the time, secured vote share a little way below their General Election polling figures.

As such, this May it is quite likely that we may see the same effect, with opposition parties polling stronger, and government parties polling lower than their General Election polling suggests.  But all of this, as with everything right now in the political landscape, depends on the outcome of Brexit.

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February 2019 Poll