Sunday 26 January 2020

Enda sniffs victory but should he have gone to polls early?

Some Fine Gael backbenchers last night expressed disappointment that they were not going to the polls sooner, but declined to publicly criticise Mr Kenny’s decision to give into Labour demands for a spring election
Some Fine Gael backbenchers last night expressed disappointment that they were not going to the polls sooner, but declined to publicly criticise Mr Kenny’s decision to give into Labour demands for a spring election

Enda Kenny must be starting to wish he had held his nerve and gone to the country in November.

According to the latest opinion poll, a general election today would leave Fine Gael in pole position to win a second term.

With Labour still desperately weak, there is no room for complacency in Government Buildings - but at least the Coalition parties can now start talking about victory without the idea sounding completely ridiculous.

Yesterday's Millward Brown poll for the Sunday Independent contained plenty of mixed messages. Fine Gael (29pc, up five points) are enjoying a huge bounce from Michael Noonan's giveaway budget four weeks ago, while Labour (7pc, no change) remain firmly stuck in the death zone.

As for the Opposition, Fianna Fail (24pc, up one) and Sinn Fein (21pc, no change) are holding steady while Independents and smaller parties (19pc, down five) seem to have taken a bit of a tumble.

Most encouragingly of all from Enda's point of view, Irish people are slowly starting to feel better about the future. Two thirds of us expect to be either richer or as well off this time next year - not bad given we've only recently emerged from a recession.

The Government's satisfaction rating has climbed seven points to 32pc, not exactly brilliant but still their highest level since 2012.

Looking at all these figures, it is obvious why so many people in the Taoiseach's inner circle wanted him to call an early election. It is also obvious why Labour leader Joan Burton was so dead set against the idea.

As we all know, Kenny eventually bottled out and TDs can enjoy one more Christmas before taking their posters out from under the bed.


Of course, Fine Gael and Labour still do not have enough support to form another coalition on their own. Not only does this latest poll show the tide flowing in Enda's direction, however, it also shows him a clear path to follow.

Since all of his extra votes have come from Independents and small parties, it makes sense to keep on fishing in the same pool.

In particular, Kenny and Burton must target one important category of voters. It includes people who backed Fine Gael and Labour in 2011, have got fed up with scandals such as Irish Water but still cannot bring themselves to support either Fianna Fail or Sinn Fein.

These votes are still up for grabs - and the Government thinks it can poach them by pushing a 'stability or chaos' message.

Enda and Joan can also take heart from seeing some of their opponents self-destruct. Sinn Fein's recent attempts to form a new left-wing alliance have basically fizzled out, mainly because the parties they approached do not see them as genuine socialists.

If a clear alternative to the current coalition does not emerge soon, then Fine Gael and Labour may be able to win purely by showing up.

Two big social problems might yet rain on the Government's parade. Last week was dominated by more horror stories from our health system, most notably a 91-year-old man who was left waiting on a trolley for 29 hours at Tallaght Hospital.

Enda Kenny and Health Minister Leo Varadkar both attempted to pass the buck, suggesting that they can only brace themselves for other disturbing incidents from our emergency departments as the winter weather sets in.

The other potential banana skin is Ireland's housing crisis. After several weeks of bad-tempered horse-trading, Environment Minister Alan Kelly will tomorrow unveil a policy package that involves freezing rents for two years.

According to some homelessness campaigners, however, this is no more than a sticking plaster - they believe that more homeless people could die on the streets of Dublin this winter.

Enda Kenny has just celebrated the 40th anniversary of his arrival in Dail Eireann. If he can run a tight ship for another 100 days or so and become the first Fine Gael Taoiseach to get re-elected, he really will have earned a place in the history books.

If not, Enda could end up looking back at this November as a huge missed opportunity - and cursing the day that he allowed Joan Burton to face him down.

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