Normal Political Service Will Resume When Pubs (ie Wet Bars) Reopen

This column appeared on Broadsheet.ie on Jan 18th, 2021and looked at the impact of the pandemic on the craft and practise of normal politics. I suggest that we will not see a return to the normal exercise and discussion of ordinary politics until we are all able to safely have a pint or a drink without food in a non-gastro pub (the so-called Wet Bars). For that to happen, the vaccination programme will need to roll out much faster.

A faltering start and confusing release of data will not instill confidence in the public. If voters see Northern Ireland and Scotland a long way ahead of us by mid- March, in terms of vaccinating people and preparing to re-open, then public patience with the government, and with the Taoiseach and Health Minister in particular, will snap.

Writing traditional political analysis at a time when the usual power play and open practise of normal politics has been suspended is not easy. Writing it when people are worrying about the damage this pandemic is inflicting on their lives and livelihoods is uncomfortable.

The ups and down of this junior minister or that opposition frontbencher are so unimportant when compared with the concerns of people worried about whether their jobs will be still there, or their business will still be viable after the pandemic.

Even in normal times, the reporting of political processes, the who’s in and who’s out, only serves as a distraction from the real stuff of politics when its discussion is detached from the consequences of those movements on the formulation and implementation of policy.

While these are not normal times, their gradual return is almost within sight, and with those normal times will come a return to the normal practise and discussion of politics.

While no one is foolhardy enough to dare suggest a hard date for that return, I’d wager that we will not see a return to this normal politics this side of the wet pubs re-opening. I say this with deference to the many publicans who may now fear my forecast will act as an incentive for Micheál Martin to keep them closed to 2022!

So, while it may still seem untimely to discuss some of what is happening inside the political parties right now, yesterday’s Ireland Thinks/Mail on Sunday opinion poll does give us licence to explore some broader points.

Though the poll does not report any significant developments, the shifts are within the margin of error, it is still worthwhile as it shows existing trends solidifying via incremental shifts of support from the government parties to a mixed range of opposition parties and independents.

I am not trying to downplay the gains made by Sinn Féin. Its progress is clear to see. Two of the three most recent polls now show it ahead of Fine Gael – 1pt in this poll and 5pts in the December B&A/Sunday Times poll, with the other one showing them level pegging.

Look across the seven national polls published since last October and you find Fine Gael poll support averaging 31.3%, Sinn Féin’s averages at 29.3%, Fianna Fáil’s at 16.1%. In terms of the smaller parties, the Greens and Labour average around 4% each, behind them are the SocDems, Solidarity-PBP and Aontú on around 3% 2% and 2% respectively, while Independents and others score an impressive 7.5%.      

So far, so what, says you. All the parties are roughly where they have been for the last six months but track the combined support for the three government parties and you detect a slow trend away. Their combined support has slipped from the mid-50s in Sept and Oct, to the low 50s in November and December and to just 46% in yesterday’s poll.

We shall see if other polls confirm this trend of gradual slippage in support, particularly the upcoming Red C/Business Post Poll. We shall also see if they too point to Fianna Fáil being the polling weak spot of the government.

While all three parties have seen rises and falls in their support over those polls, Fianna Fáil has seen its levels fluctuate most. They have swung wildly from the devastating 11% in an October poll to the morale bolstering 22% in a December one. That said, not even the most besotted Martin-ite cumann secretary thinks they are on 22% or within an asses’ roar of it.   

The latest Ireland Thinks poll comes in the middle of some significant anniversaries for Micheál Martin and Fianna Fáil. This day last year (Jan 18, 2020) the party was one-week into the election campaign. It was still basking in the first national poll of the campaign (Sunday Times/B&A) which had it 12 points ahead of both Fine Gael and Sinn Féin. That changed on Jan 18th with the Irish Times/MRBI poll that suggested the race might be tighter than Martin had hoped, picking up on the scale of Sinn Féin surge.

What a difference a year makes!

Last year might as well be a decade ago… speaking of which brings us to another key anniversary. Last Saturday marked the tenth anniversary of Micheál Martin’s Martin Luther moment, when he metaphorically nailed his disputation to the doors of the old Burlington Hotel. On Jan 16, 2011 Martin proclaimed that Fianna Fail’s dismal poll ratings* meant it was time to change leader, saying.

“I believe that Fianna Fáil must recognize the reality of the current climate of public opinion… I have reluctantly concluded that, in these circumstances, Fianna Fáil should change its leader.”

* (A Paddy Power/RedC poll on 7/01/2011 showed: FF 14%, FG 35%, Lab 21%, and SF 14%)

Even that notional Martin-ite cumann secretary of whom I spoke earlier wouldn’t dare claim his parties languishing poll numbers are down to Covid-19.

They might, however, have a case if they were to argue that the party cannot expect to see any faint recovery in its fortunes until the country is safely out of lockdown. Something that depends on An Taoiseach and his Minister for Health delivering a speedy and effective vaccination program.

A few weeks ago I said that the State’s vaccination program looked unambitious. and lacklustre. It has since been retuned and upgraded. It now looks and sounds a bit more ambitious, with clearer targets and specific timelines, but there is a long way to go.

Right now, the UK is on course to have 15 million of its citizens vaccinated (with their first dose) by mid-February. About 22% of the population. Minister Donnelly says the Irish plan is to have 700,000 people vaccinated by the end of March. So, it will take us six weeks longer to get just three quarters of the way to a target of vaccinating 20% of the population.

The State needs to quickly build confidence in its capacity to roll out a serious vaccination programme. This task is not made easier by people finding the only information they can easily obtain is via a link to an online calculator they got from a mate via email or WhatsApp. Especially when that programme is telling many of them that they should not expect to get their first or second vaccine dose until late this year or early 2022.

This is not down to malign intent. The calculator assumes the State’s vaccination rate will remain at 42,000 per week (it even allows you increase this rate). The builders of the app based it on the information the minister had released, and as of Sunday night the Covid data hub still only showed the vaccination figure for up to January 13.

Posting fancy charts in March or April showing how well we are doing well compared to Serbia, Bulgaria, or Luxemburg (or whoever is trailing us by then) won’t cut much ice with the public, especially when they can daily see how far both Northern Ireland and Scotland will be ahead of us. People will be tolerant and patient with Minister Donnelly and Taoiseach Martin until March, but that patience will not stretch far beyond then.

Come March, if not before, the public will rightly want to feel they can look forward to some limited semblance of normality before the end of the summer. For that to happen they will need two things.

The first, they will want to know, with a reasonable degree of confidence, how long more they will have to wait to receive their vaccinations.

The second, they will want to be absolutely reassured by government and by NPHET that there will be no long-term return to Level-5-lockdowns once we reach the early summer.

If Donnelly and Martin do not succeed in convincing the public on both scores, then one of the principal upshots of the reopening of the wet pubs, whenever that may eventually happen, could be their party colleagues calling time on them.

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