"I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth." (Karl Popper)

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Thoughts on the day of the calm before the (electoral storm)

The final furlong is underway; the radio and tv are staging their legally enforced broadcasting blackout; internecine struggles reach their highest pitch. The election is less than 24 hours away and no one knows what will happen. No one knew five years that Fine Gael would do so badly; no one knew in 1977 that Jack Lynch would win an overall majority. That is the great beauty of our system: whatever about the merits of the parties and leaders on offer, it is up to us to decide the question: Who governs?


I recently heard democracy being described as "government by opinion". The latest
measurement of public opinion showed a five-point shift to Fianna Fail (41%), at the expense of a one-point drop for Fine Gael (27%) and a three-point drop for Labour (10%). When the PD's and the Greens are added to the equation, Monday's poll put the present Government parties and the Rainbow alternative tied at 43%.


As I thought might happen, the Opposition yesterday
raised the spectre of a Fianna Fail-Sinn Fein government. Both the Taoiseach and Minister denied the possibility of an explicit deal with Sinn Fein, but the latter stated Fianna Fail could receive “unsolicited support.” Eoghan Harris has said recently in the Sunday Independent that Bertie Ahern would rather take a chainsaw and cut off his own legs than give Mary Lou McDonald a ministry. I agree. I'd be amazed if a FF-SF deal were to happen this time around.


Today's Irish Times Head2Head slot features articles by Bertie Ahern and Enda Kenny.
Mr Ahern (sub req'd) says:
"Our record in government is second to none. We have raised pensions, cut hospital waiting lists from years to months, brought in 3,000 new gardaí, cut taxes, built roads and the Luas, raised child benefit and helped to create 600,000 jobs. This represents more progress in a shorter time than achieved under any government in our history.

I understand we have not solved every problem these past 10 years. I know that the advances we have made on so many fronts, and which are so visible around us, do not mean the end of the challenges we face. But I believe the best way ahead is to build on our progress, not turn our back on it. This election is about the future.

I am excited about the possibilities. There is so much more that we can do, now
that we have built the foundation of sustained prosperity. Fianna Fáil has a specific, costed and ambitious plan for Ireland's future. It's the Next Steps Forward. This is a plan that has been costed, and thought through."

After reeling off the campaign promises we have heard repeatedly over the last few weeks, Mr Ahern repeats claims he made in the debate last Thursday night, such as that the Fine Gael/Labour tax proposal amounts to "[t]ax cuts directed towards the wealthiest few", in particular top 3 per cent of earners, and that no child born today would benefit from the Fine Gael/Labour plan for free GP visits for children aged under five. (Enda Kenny fluffed the point last Thursday night, but explained to Pat Kenny on Radio 1 Monday morning that the plan is to negotiate the proposal in the first 100 days of the new administration and put it into effect in one fell swoop. The effect of that would be that, contrary to Fianna Fail's allegation, plenty of children born today would stand to benefit.) The Taoiseach concludes his Irish Times article by saying that:
"Enda Kenny's contract with Ireland is a fraud. It isn't worth the billboard it is written on."
"[H]ere is the choice: should we build on the progress of the last 10 years, or take a risk, with unproven leadership and uncosted promises?
I ask for the chance to work with you to keep building an Ireland that our children and grandchildren can live and prosper in, an Ireland of pride and great purpose. It's up to all of us to get out to the polls, so that the peace and prosperity of the last decade can be defended and developed.
Now is the time for Ireland to take the Next Steps Forward."


Enda Kenny's Irish Times
piece (sub req'd) predictably attacks the Taoiseach's recent use of the word "peripheral" to describe the problems in healthcare and education. After that jibe, Kenny sets out his vision:
"I understand what needs to be done to tackle the challenges facing our country. I have an ambition for the country and a vision for where it should be in the next five and 10 years. Having a vision of a strong economy with public services to match is not enough.
To realise that vision you need an agenda for action. I have set out my agenda for action in my Contract for a Better Ireland, which lays out the fundamental building blocks of a new and better country."

The article tries to focus readers' attention on the health service (the Fine Gael/Labour Alliance for Change has called the election a referendum on the state of the health service):
"To change the health service for the better, you have to change the government.
The commitments in my contract on health will bring a transformation to our hospitals and our families. With more beds, we reduce waiting in A&Es and for critical life-saving operations. We also make our hospitals places of healing rather than infection. With properly equipped isolation units we can control the hospital-acquired infections that are plaguing our nation.
With better healthcare for our children, we will be rearing the healthiest generation our country has ever seen.
Investment now will pay immeasurable dividends in future years, both in health and the quality of their lives."

The Fine Gael leader then repeats his pledge to hold himslef accountable to his Contract, and to hold Ministers accountable for incompetence:
"After years of cynicism about politics and politicians, after years of deception and broken promises, I believe it's time a politician stepped up to the line and took responsibility for their actions in government.
Having fulfilled my contract, and only having fulfilled my contract, will I stand again, before you, the people of Ireland, and ask you to re-elect me as taoiseach. And if I have not, I will not.

If you want politicians to be as accountable as you are in your own life, then vote for the contract and vote for Fine Gael.
Tomorrow, for the first time ever in an Irish election, people will have the chance to vote for a politician who is willing to stand up and take responsibility for their actions in government.
I am that politician."

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Polls show hung Dail on the cards

After last Sunday's statement by the Taoiseach on his finances and the leaders' debates midweek, a ray of light for Fianna Fail in the shape of two new opinion polls. Today's Millward Brown IMS/Sunday Independent and Red C/Sunday Business Post polls show Fianna Fail gaining slightly against the FG/Labour alliance. The Sunday Independent poll was conducted on Monday and Tuesday - after the statement and before the debates, while the Sunday Business Post took the nation's temperature on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

The numbers are as follows. Sunday Independent: FF 37 (+2), FG 25 (-1), Labour 12 (-1), PD's 3 (no change), Greens 5 (no change), Sinn Fein 9 (-1), Independent/others 9 (-1). Sunday Business Post: FF 36 (+1), FG 27 (-2), Labour 11 (-1), Greens 8 (+2), SF 10 (+3), PD 2(-1) and Independent/others 6 (-2).

On these numbers, a hung Dail is a distinct possibility, with both alternatives coming up short of a majority. Fianna Fail will be happy the slide has ended, but a one-point gain in the only poll taken after the Bertie-Enda debate isn't much of a bounce. The Red C poll puts FG/Labour and the Greens on 46%, which (lest we forget) is more than the current Government managed in
2002. However, last time out both Fianna Fail and the PD's probably took more seats than expected on the number of first preferences they attracted. It seems to me that Fine Gael's target must be to reach or better its 1997 result of 27.9%. Working on the premise that the Millward Brown IMS underestimates Fine Gael support and the Red C poll is the more accurate, then FG is in the ballpark. The Red C poll also shows the Greens recovering well - they look a good bet for 8-9 seats. Therefore, FG/Labour's target is 74 or 75. Fine Gael needs to break the magic 50-seat barrier - a return to its 1997 level of 52 seats would do nicely. Enda Kenny would then get a majority.

But how likely is that? The first difficulty is that, like all general elections in Ireland, there is a degree to which Thursday will be 43 disconnected local battles. Many voters will look to whose is best for their area, rather for the nation. As Stephen Collins pointed out in yesterday's Irish Times, "as the strongest and most successful political organisation in the history of the State, [Fianna Fail] is better equipped than any other party to survive on an ebbing tide. There are a number of constituencies in which Fianna Fail could endure a significant vote loss but hold on to its seats." The second difficulty is that, whatever about how he came to own his house, Bertie Ahern remains the towering figure of modern Irish politics post-Lemass, both in terms of popularity and achievement. There will be people voting on Thursday (like Eoghan Harris, as he says in today's Sunday Independent), in order to get Bertie for a third term. Thursday night's debate reminded the voters that he remains a formidable operator. In comparison with Enda Kenny, he is the experienced choice for Taoiseach. The difficulty with that argument is that Fine Gael has only been in power for two of the last 20 years: There is hardly a non-FF politician in the land qualified for the job of Taoiseach, if one insists on significant recent ministerial experience.

Two final things of note. Firstly, Ivan Yates, former FG minister and now bookmaker, says the best odds currently favour the following outcome, as told to the Sunday Tribune: FF 64-66 or 66-69 (equal odds), FG 45-47, Labour 21-22, PD's 2, Sinn Fein, 9-10, Greens 9. The difference between those figures and a Rainbow majority is the difference between its projection for Fine Gael (45-47) and Fine Gael's target: 52.

Second, the front page of this morning's Sunday Tribune has the headline "Four days to go ... Fianna Fail's only option: Taoiseach Rabbitte or Taoiseach O'Caolain." The former has emphatically rejected Fianna Fail overtures, the latter's overtures have been emphatically rejected by Fianna Fail. The election could yet turn on a last-furlong shift on sentiment, as it did in 2002 due to Michael McDowell's capitalisation on the need to prevent one-party government. I wonder whether the spanner in the works this time might be public fear that a vote for Fianna Fail would be a vote for Sinn Fein in government. Personally I think that would be unfair on Bertie Ahern, who I believe is genuinely opposed to Sinn Fein participation in government. We'll see soon enough whether the FG/Labour alliance wants to make an issue of it. In an interview in today's Sunday Independent, Enda Kenny said: "Can you take the Taoiseach on his word on this matter? It's like this, power for Fianna Fail is the ultimate."

Friday, May 18, 2007

Latest betting on Election 2007

At present, Paddy Power has Kenny at 4-5 to be the next Taoiseach, Ahern at 5-4 and Cowen 6-1. Pat Rabbitte is 8-15 to be Tanaiste, whereas Michael McDowell has no better odds than Brendan Howlin - both are at 7-1. As for number of seats in the 30th Dail, the shortest odds are on FF to return with 63-66 seats (6-4), FG 52+ seats (10-11), Labour 23+ seats (11-10), Green party 9-10 seats (7-4), PD's 1-3 seats (11-10) and Sinn Fein 9-10 seats (11-10). If the parties get (say) 63, 52, 23, 9, 3 and 9, that would only leave 7 seats for others. With Joe Higgins a near-certainty for the Socialist party and Clare Daly in with a shout, that would leave only 5 Independents. It would also put Fine Gael, Labour and the Greens in government, with 84 seats i.e. a one-seat majority.

For the changing betting picture, see Irish Election Betting.

The Bertie-Enda debate

Last night's debate between the candidates for Taoiseach attracted almost a million viewers. But who won? All the contributors on Vincent Browne's radio show last night gave it to Bertie. By contrast, all three broadsheet newspapers scored it a draw. By contrast The headline in The Irish Times today was "Kenny scores on confidence and Ahern on detail." I must say that chimes with my view of the debate. As Stephen Collins puts it on page one of the Irish Times report, Enda impressed with the "confidence and the clarity of his message on services and accountability" and generally looked "confident and alert." The Irish Examiner headline was "No killer punchline means a messy draw" and the Irish Independent's verdict was "Ahern shades it but fails to land a knockout." RTE.ie said: "Most commentators agreed that Bertie Ahern won overall, despite a strong performance from Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny."

The challenger has a clear message (the Contract for a Better Ireland) and was intent on getting it across to those watching and listening. He stumbled a few times with figures, but I don't think that will have bothered many watching - the trench warfare over budgetary figures and projections probably went over the heads of most voters, including this one. Kenny also didn't deal properly with the Taoiseach's allegation that the top 3% of earners would gain most from the FG-Labour tax proposals. On the healthcare issue, which should have been his strongest area (by virtue of it being the Government's weakest flank), Kenny didn't score a clear victory. The speech as Gaeilge and the quote from Abraham Lincoln at the end were good touches.

Both began a little tensely, but got into their stride before long. Bertie gave a generally commanding performance and fought a tough, at times ferocious, rearguard action on the healthcare issue. I was also impressed by the easygoing way in which the Taoiseach emphasised his experience at the Cabinet table and that he answered well when Miriam O'Callaghan asked him to disagree with Tony Blair's statement that 10 years is long enough to be head of government. His opening breeziness evaporated when asked about his house and the loans he took from friends, but he had a free pass on that, since Kenny expressed no view on it. The Taoiseach shipped a few heavy blows, I thought, when Kenny pointed out that numerous Fianna Fail promises made in 2002 never came to pass, such as the Dublin Metro open by this year (building has yet to start), 2000 extra Gardai on the beat (admittedly that promise will be met in this fiscal year) and an end to waiting lists (albeit Bertie countered that lists have come down in many areas).

My own view? The debate ebbed and flowed. Probably the champion shaded it on points, but the challenger threw some good punches too.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Labour/PD/Green/SF leaders debate

So who won last night's debate? Examiner columnist Harry McGee's initial reaction was that "Rabbitte (relaxed, almost too Cheshire Cat) pipped it from McDowell (over negative, too prone to personal insults) from Adams (relaxed but woolly on specifics espeically on the economy) and Trevor (made some very good points; defended himself well but the writing on the hands was a disaster)." Let me give my view on each of the four leaders' performances, for what it is worth.

Rabbitte, aside from the smirk that seemed constantly on his face when others (especially McDowell) were speaking, was composed and avoided the squabbling between Sargent and McDowell, in which the Green leader in particular seemed intent on reprising the Rumble in Ranelagh. His remark that McDowell was acting "like a menopausal Paris Hilton" was just plain odd. Rabbitte seemed a little uncomfortable when asked how cutting the baic rate of income tax was consistent with drastic improvements in public services, but I thought he answered the question well. On the plus side, however, he did best in the opening set piece individual speeches and avoided having any serious blows landed on him. John at Semper Idem is right to say: "He was calm and collected, defended himself well, and came across very competently on those moments when the issues were discussed." I noticed on a number of occasions that he interjected after Sargent had made a point to agree with him, thereby trying to show the compatibility of Labour and the Greens.

McDowell was in fighting form and seemed determined to present the PD's (and by extension the present Government) as the only safe option when it comes to the country's economic and fiscal prospects. So he repeated the Greens' plan to raise €1 billion over five years via a levy on the banks; he quoted Rabbitte's remark that as Minister for Finance he would "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted". His hardest blows fell on the strangely hapless Adams, though. When the Sinn Fein leader claimed to live on the average industrial wage, McDowell reminded him of his (Adams') holiday home in Donegal; when Adams responded that it's owned by the bank, McDowell, quick as a flash, asked whether it was the Northern Bank. Similarly, when Adams lamented the state of national drugs policy, McDowell shot back that the Provos had sold their paramilitary know-how to FARC narco-terrorists in Colombia in exchange for $25 million. I have to agree with Harry McGee though, that too much of McDowell's content was negative. It would have been better for him to spend more time emphasising the economic success of the last 10 years and building on his convention speech pledge to take Ireland "from good to great".

Sargent's opening speech was decent and, then went toe-to-toe with McDowell and showed no lack of confidence. The cog notes on his hand looked a little silly, but I don't think that will exactly be a matter affecting how people vote. He made some good points and got in his customary reference to how well the Greens have apparently done in government in Germany, Finland and Sweden, but probably would have liked more of a chance to make the points his party has cogently made on signature Green issues.

As for Adams, I think Mark Hennessy is right that he got "a hiding". Hennessy adds accurately: "Adams’ oft-repeated nonsense that he lives on the average industrial wage was cruelly exposed by the PD leader" and "Adams weak command of economics, particularly when he accused Labour of wanting to privatise the health service, was brought into the light, though rarely as clearly as this." Certainly Hennessy's conclusion is right too: "While Adams will not have lost any of his party’s core support in last night’s debate, there is little doubt but that he will have done little to attract second, third and fourth preferences from uncommitted voters." (I am at a loss as to how it can United Irelander can say that Adams performed better than McDowell and equally as well as Rabbitte.)

Rabbitte 6.5/10
McDowell 6.5/10
Sargent 5/10
Adams 2/10

Evening Herald poll suggests FG gaining at FF's expense

As he prepares for tonight's Prime Time debate with Enda Kenny, an Evening Herald poll has bad news for Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. The poll shows that Fianna Fail is slipping in Dublin and that Fine Gael is gaining. The current Government lags a significant distance behind the possible alternative coalition. The figures in the Herald poll are as follows: Fianna Fail 29% (-8), Fine Gael 22% (+7), Labour 15% (no change), PDs 3%, Greens 8% and Sinn Fein 11%. That puts the FF/PD coalition on 32% and FG/Labour on 37%, rising to 45% when the Greens are included.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Irish Independent poll suggests Govt doing poorly, FG/Lab improving

Today's Irish Independent/Millward Brown IMS poll is bad for the Government. The poll, taken last Wednesday and Thursday, shows: Fianna Fail 35% (-3), Fine Gael 26% (+3), Labour 13% (+1), PDs 3% (-1), the Greens 5% (-1), Sinn Féin 10% (+2) and Independent/others 8% (no change).

The 44% achieved by the FG/Labour/Green Rainbow would likely be insufficient to form a majority. But, as RTE notes, surveys from this firm "have in the past been said to overestimate Fianna Fáil and underestimate Fine Gael support." For example, in 2002, Millward Brown IMS gave Fianna Fail 50% just before the election. In the event, the party took 41.5% of first preferences. On that basis, if Fine Gael were to outperform its 26% result in today's poll on election day, it would move close to entering government. Surely though today's poll couldn't overestimate Fianna Fail support, could it?

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Sunday poll suggests FF slipping, FG/Lab doing well

Today's Sunday Business Post/Red C poll shows a drop in support for Fianna Fáil and a gain for Fine Gael since last Sunday. The PDs improve on their (dismal) showing of last week. The Greens' poor run of polls continues, while Sinn Féin received no bounce from the week's events in Belfast. The figures: FF 35% (-2), FG 29% (+3), Labour 12% (no change), PDs 3% (+1), SF 7% (-1), Greens 6% (-2), Independents/others 8% (+1). The number answering undecided is 18%.

I decided to see what the average of today's poll, plus four other polls to date (Irish Times May 11th, Sunday Business Post May 6th, Irish Examiner May 5th and Irish Times April 27th), would reveal. The average support for the parties, with the change from 2002 in brackets, is as follows: FF 35.8% (-5.7), FG 28% (+5.5), Labour 12% (+1.2), PDs 2.4% (-1.6), Green 6.2% (+2.4), SF 8.6% (+2.1), Independent/other 7.2% (-3.8).

A look back reminds us that, in 1997, Fine Gael won 27.9% and Labour 12.9%, which resulted 54 and 21* seats, respectively. That indicates that both parties will need to take at least the percentage of first preferences they did in 1997, if Fianna Fáil is to be ousted from government. (*Labour numbers include Democratic Left.)

Saturday, May 12, 2007

One way to pick your party

The Department of Political Science in Trinity has launched a webiste called pickyourparty.ie, which is intended to give users an indication of the political party closest to their own views. By means of a simple survey, the website calculates the party with which the user's expressed preferences tally most accurately. It might be more accurate, if the survey covered a greater range of questions, but it is an interesting innovation nonetheless.

The mechanism is based on an expert survey of the various party's on the political issues, but it the site notes that "the survey was administered in 2002-2003 any policy-shifts that have occurred since that point in time are not accounted for on this website." Any number of policy shifts have, of course, occurred in that timeframe last few months, e.g. Labour's and Sinn Fein's changed tax policies (albeit a far greater leap in the latter instance). The emphasis of Fianna Fáil's fiscal policy has changed since the 2002-2003 period too, to take another clear example.