Sinn Féin could be on the cusp of a breakthrough in the 26 Counties as polls show a sharp jump in support for the party and a corresponding decline in support for the main party of government, Fine Gael.
The Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll shows support for Mary Lou McDonald’s party has jumped by seven points to 21 per cent, a figure which is in line with another poll published for the Sunday Times.
The polls also show Fine Gael down six per cent, putting them behind their ‘supply and confidence’ allies in government of the past four years, Fianna Fáil.
Many commentators attributed the change to the public backlash over the government’s plan to commemorate the actions of the British Crown Forces as part of its centenary of events to mark Ireland’s War of Independence. Their overall strategy to present the history of that period from a pro-British point of view has come in for intense public criticism and repudiation.
Other factors which have undermined the government’s popularity are fears of a crime surge following grisly killings in Cork and Dublin, an incident in which a homeless man was seriously injured as he was removed from a canal bank, and the unprecedented bed shortage in Irish hospitals.
By contrast, it has been a successful campaign start for Sinn Féin, who have set out incisive policies on pensions, housing and health, and put forward by the party’s most trusted politicians, Pearse Doherty and Eoin O Broin.
There was a strong public welcome for Sinn Féin’s call to overturn the hike in the pension age to 67 brought in by previous right-wing governments, who had the goal of reaching 68, the highest in Europe. At a time of immense public wealth for Ireland’s elite, the unsupportable policy was exposed by Sinn Féin, and all of the main parties have now been forced to suddenly revise their positions on the issue.
The issue has also brought a tangible boost for Sinn Féin ahead of the election as it captured more than a 20% vote share of the 50-64 age demographic for the first time, according to the Irish Times/Ipsos poll.
Another policy to gain significant attention for the party is a plan for the largest public housing building programme in the history of the 26 County state, with 100,000 new homes, as well as a rent freeze and a rent tax rebate. The party has also vowed to deliver childcare as a public service and as part of a national health service.
Support for Sinn Féin has increased across all regions, particularly in Leinster outside Dublin, where it has the support of more than one in four. Mary Lou McDonald’s personal rating has also risen by four percent to 34%, while Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s personal satisfaction rating has fallen from 51% to 35%.
When undecided voters are excluded, the state of the parties compared to three months ago, is:
Fianna Fáil – 25% (no change) Fine Gael – 23% (down six) Sinn Féin – 21% (up seven) Labour – 5% (down one) Green Party – 8% (no change) Solidarity-PBP – 2% (up one) Social Democrats 2% (up one) Independents/others – 18% (no change)
With just four percentage points between the three largest political parties two weeks before the election, the decision by RTE and Virgin Media to exclude Sinn Féin from their election debates has become even more controversial.
A televised face-off between two government allies, Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, took place on Virgin Media on Wednesday night. The absence of Mary Lou McDonald was seen by commentators as a devastating comment in itself.
Sinn Féin has said it is looking at a legal remedy to deal with RTE’s refusal to include the party in its leaders’ debate, scheduled for February 4th.
The polls showed clearly that the election was ‘not a two horse race’, Ms McDonald said.
“It’s a bit of a farce to say that you can have a debate between two parties that are virtually identical in policy terms and a debate between two men who have been in government together for the last four years through the confidence and supply agreement.
“It’s not about me and it’s not even about Sinn Féin. You cannot decide that you attach greater weight to the vote of one section of the people and not the other.
“I was surprised at the extent to which people raised this issue with me. It’s unfair to exclude other voices. We are going to challenge it hard.”
She also accused the government of making an “insulting mistake” in terms of the proposed commemoration for the Black and Tans, and that it was out of touch with public opinion in relation to the issue.
“Whatever the intelligentsia of this country might think, and they are entitled to their view, their views do not tally with the vast number of people across this land,” she said.
“We want to build a positive future, but we will have not have the bravery of those who fought the Black and Tans insulted or dismissed in any way.
“The reaction of people across the people across the board was strong, swift and determined. Despite those who tried to tell the people that we were somehow immature not to remember our history, our past and our identity, I think Irish public opinion has given them their answer.
“There would be no government in Dublin, no RTÉ, no officer of taoiseach or tánaiste except for those who fought the Black and Tans and communities and families know that.
“They will not have our past or our patriotic dead disrespected by anybody including a sitting government.”
However, Ms McDonald said she believed it would be other factors which could swing the election in Sinn Féin’s favour.
“A certain section of the public are ready for change now and for us, as advocates for a fair society, I believe that we have the policies that can crack the housing crisis and health,” she said.