MICHAEL WOLSEY: Enjoy the election poetry – we’ll be back to prose soon enough
Unless opinion polls have been getting it badly wrong, the result of this General Election is unlikely to be very different from the outcome of the last one.
In 2016, Fine Gael got just over 25% of the first preference vote and Fianna Fáil a little over 24%.
Support for the two big parties has stayed close to those figures ever since, with the variance from poll to poll usually within the margin of error.
Fine Gael increased its lead in the first year, dropped back, then went up again when Leo Varadkar became Taoiseach. It has been slipping in recent months.
Fianna Fáil appeared to be losing ground but has fought back and the last poll published before dissolution of the Dáil showed the parties on 27% each.
Sinn Féin got just under 14% of the vote in 2016. There is a perception that the party has been doing badly of late but that is only because it had been riding high in the polls, breathing down the neck of Fianna Fáil at one stage.
That last pre-campaign poll – a Behaviour and Attitudes survey for the Sunday Times – put Sinn Féin’s support at 20% which, if translated into first preference votes on February 8, would actually be a considerable improvement on 2016.
Even in that there is consistency, for polls published before the 2016 election also showed Sinn Féin with around 20% of the vote. The party invariably underperforms on this side of the border and must fearful of missing its target once again.
But percentage share is not the only factor that decides elections. Transfers and the battles in individual constituencies are also crucial. Fine Gael won on both fronts last time out. In effect, it got better value from its votes than FF and so ended up the biggest party in the Dáil.
This time around, Fine Gael has problems in a number of constituencies.
In Waterford, the party has been at war. Its sitting TD, John Deasy, is not seeking re-election and the heir apparent, Senator Paudie Coffey, has decided to quit politics.
Controversies around two Murphys – Dara and Verona – will haunt the party in Cork North Central and Wexford.
Verona Murphy is running as an Independent in Wexford and that could well cost her former party a seat.
In Dún Laoghaire, FG may also face an Independent challenge from a former member, TD Maria Bailey. Even if she does not run, the fallout from swing-gate and bitterness over her de-selection, will harm the party.
Fine Gael has lost strong vote-getters in Enda Kenny and Frances Fitzgerald and, after nine years in office, is not as transfer-friendly as it was in 2016.
Another new factor is the rise of the Greens. I expect them to do well but probably at the expense of Independents and small parties from the Left, so that would not much alter the basic Dáil arithmetic.
The campaign may throw up surprises but I expect that formation of the next government will again come down to the wheeling and dealing of coalition formation. And another confidence and supply agreement may well be needed.
If so, I hope whichever is the smaller of the big two parties will oblige. I had serious doubts about whether such an arrangement could last beyond 2016. But it stayed the course and brought a degree of consensus to Irish politics which served us well in the Brexit negotiations and on such issues as abortion and same-sex marriage.
Whatever the outcome, I hope the campaign will be interesting and that voters will turn out in decent numbers.
“You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose,” said New York politician Mario Cuomo. That’s always been the way in Ireland.
So enjoy the poetry while it lasts. We’ll be back to prose soon enough.