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The left-right march
As the dust settles, we can say a couple of things for sure: the first is that the opinion polls generally got it spectacularly wrong; the second is that the pundits fared even worse, in terms of their attempts to call the result in advance
Niall Stokes, 23 May 2002
What a bizarre election that turned out to be! Fianna Fail in the ascendant, Fine Gael in the dumps, Labour going nowhere, the PDs resurrected, the Greens on the rise, Sinn Fein on the map, and a rag bag of independents mopping up the votes that might otherwise have delivered an overall majority to FF or kept FG in the game.
As the dust settles, we can say a couple of things for sure: the first is that the opinion polls generally got it spectacularly wrong; the second is that the pundits fared even worse, in terms of their attempts to call the result in advance.
Everyone knew that Michael Noonan had failed to capture the imagination, and that his party’s campaign was not going well – but no one had even the remotest sense of just how bad things would get for Fine Gael. With the traditional main party of opposition losing a spectacular 23 TDs, the concept of a safe seat may from now on be deemed an oxymoron.
The role of the opinion polls is worth dwelling on for a minute. Because they are considered to be good for newspaper sales, and for driving ratings in the broadcast media, far too much weight is given to them in the current political scheme of things. The fact is that they are often grievously misleading. In the recent campaign, a couple of national polls had Fianna Fail close to the 50% mark. There is no likelihood that this was an accurate representation of the lie of the land, even at that moment in time. Three obvious questions follow. Were the polls inherently faulty or badly researched? Might they have been skewed, in whatever way, to achieve a particular effect? Or is it that there is a genuine reluctance on the part of at least a proportion of voters to divulge what their real intentions are?
Ian McShane of MRBI mounted a spirited defence of the polls which were conducted by his organisation for the Irish Times, pointing out that the results were more or less within the allowable margin of error of 3%, having given Fianna Fail 45.2% of the vote, four days before an election in which the party came through with just 41.5%. Which is fair enough, if you are willing to accept that, the next time a poll says that FF are running at 43% support, the newspapers really should report this by informing us that FF are anywhere between 40% and 46%. That would be accurate. But it is not likely to sell newspapers.
(While we’re on the subject, if that is what a 3% margin of error really means, are we to assume that the Greens being shown at, say, 4% means that they could be anywhere between 1% and 7% – in other words that there is a possible variation of 600% in where they really stand? If so, then we can, quite seriously, conclude that the only thing opinion polls are remotely useful for is measuring the approximate popularity of Fianna Fail!)
The effect of the polls may, despite their apparent misrepresentation of the picture, have been critical in this election. They were, for example, almost certainly a key factor in the remarkable turnaround, which saw the Progressive Democrats come storming back in the final week. The PDs exploited the fear of a Fianna Fail overall majority, which the polls were predicting, more effectively than any other party. Rather than stealing votes from Fianna Fail, they picked up votes that would otherwise have gone to the main opposition parties, most notably Fine Gael.
The implications of the overall result seem inescapable. The old civil war model of Irish politics is dead. In that context, Fine Gael no longer has any raison d’etre. The tide of history is running against the party and I cannot imagine how they might turn it back – especially given that a new political divide has begun to become apparent.
We may, finally, be seeing the emergence of a left/right realignment here, which at least offers the prospect of a more meaningful level of debate about the fundamental issues than we have been accustomed to.
As ever, in this country, even this shift is not without its particular complexities. Among the most interesting is the role of Sinn Fein, in soaking up a significant element of the votes of the urban disaffected. Elsewhere in Europe, we have recently been witnessing a drift to the right, and the consolidation of different shades of fascist nationalism, with the performance of Jean Marie Le Pen in France, and the pivotal position achieved by the LPF in Holland.
In the context, the rise of Sinn Fein in this part of the world is to be welcomed. My own sense is this: especially in Dublin, and in the context of the immigration issue in particular, Sinn Fein provides a channel for energies within working class communities that might otherwise be prey to a far more unpleasant and divisive form of expression.
Undeniably, there is a current of anti-Britishness within the Republican movement that has a racist thread within it. But the Republican ideal is fundamentally an inclusive and egalitarian one, and Sinn Fein as a party is committed to the broad definition of that ideal, as it was articulated by Wolfe Tone.
The current leadership has identified the party strongly with an agenda that includes support for the rights of minorities. In the emerging multi-cultural Ireland, that encompasses the rights of newcomers to these shores, no matter from what part of the world they have travelled.
The dynamic within the Republican movement on this issue, over the next couple of years, will be fascinating. The Concerned Parents (or Direct Action Against Drugs) activists within the party have been notable for their singular absence of subtlety – and for the fascist methodology to which they are willing to resort if they so decide, targeting individuals, ordering them from their homes and on occasion subjecting them to harassment and violence. In a different context, this cadre might not be out of place in the British National Party, applying the same kind of intimidatory tactics to foreign nationals who arrive in their areas. But here, it is likely that the influence of the leadership and the ideologues of Sinn Fein will ensure that these particular atavistic instincts do not establish a foothold.
Sinn Fein is facing a major challenge: how to shed, once and for all, the ethos – and the mind-set that goes with it – that has led individuals associated with them down the cul-de-sac of punishment beatings, and the application of summary (in)justice in whatever form.
It is a tough balancing act for the party. People who have forged their sense of identity out of a willingness to fight and, in some cases, to risk their lives for the cause, frequently do not go back to civvie street with great success. They feel the need for some action, and direct action against drugs goes at least some way towards fulfilling that need. But that is no excuse: the use of intimidation and violence cannot and should not be tolerated.
Sinn Fein must continue to move relentlessly forward with the final de-commissioning of the IRA. And alongside that, they must commit themselves fully and unequivocally to complete adherence to the democratic process. There is no room for kangaroo courts, under any circumstances.
If they can meet this challenge effectively, and ensure along the way that the working class communities they serve stay free of the kind of racism that is currently blighting Europe, they will have done the State, and its people, some service.
It is an endeavour in which we should all wish them well.