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Lise Hand Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are asking 'What can we do about Mary Lou?'

After a jump in recent opinion polls, the ‘big two’ parties are worried about a Shinner surge, writes Lise Hand.

IT IS ONE of the early scenes in The Sound of Music, and it shows a clutch of nuns clucking in the convent courtyard like fretful hens. The object of their angst is the brash newcomer amongst their ranks.

They simply haven’t a clue how to solve a problem like Maria.

“I hate to have to say it, but I very firmly feel…,” trilled one sister as the censorious choir
joined in with gusto: “MARIA’S NOT AN ASSET TO THE ABBEY.”

Throughout this campaign, the hills, valleys, streets and airwaves have been alive with similar expressions of bewildered consternation from the anointed ones – Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil – over what in the name of god can they do about Mary Lou McDonald and her party who, as far as the former two are concerned, are unwelcome arrivistes into the battle to form the next government.

When the first election opinion poll appeared – the Sunday Times/Behaviour & Attitudes poll on the first weekend of the campaign – all attention was riveted on the massive Fine Gael slump and Fianna Fáil jump. Many regarded the result as a bit of an outlier as the poll was carried out before the election began, but every portent indicated that it was set to be a clash of the two big beasts.

Sinn Féin support was steady but not spectacular.

But then – oh holy moly – two more polls, the Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI and the Business Post/Red C, landed in rapid succession, the former giving Sinn Féin a seven-point boost from 14% to 21%, and the latter showing the party surging by eight points from the previous Red C position of 11% last November to a vertiginous new high of 19%.

All of a sudden the Bat Signal was being activated over Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil headquarters by nervous party members who needed an answer to the conundrum of how to solve a problem like the Shinners.

They were pointed in the direction of a sheaf of opinion polls from previous general elections which showed the party’s tendency to surf near the crest of poll-waves only to end up face down in the sand when the votes are counted.

In the three months before the 2016 election, Sinn Féin’s support hovered between 17% to 21% in various polls, only for the party to cross the finish line with 13.8%. Granted, they gained seats but the run-up had hinted at greater glory.

The Holy Trinity 

It’s political holy writ: Sinn Féin inevitably over-performs in the opinion polls and under-delivers on the big day. Amen. The Irish people shalt be led into the land of plenty by a Fine Gael Messiah or a Fianna Fáil Messiah – it used to be a Holy Trinity, but the Labour Messiah was crucified by vengeful voters in 2016 and the party’s disciples are still doing penance in the wilderness.

But this time it may be different and the holy book may well be tossed out the window on 8 February – a real possibility which the Big Two are belatedly scrambling to absorb.

Fine Gael set out its electoral stall on its handling of the Brexit withdrawal agreement negotiations, underlining the necessity to preserve the status quo. It was only half-time in the talks, warned Leo Varadkar, and therefore a mighty bad time to change the team before the final result is in.

Yet eaten Brexit is soon forgotten, and the preservation of the status quo is being rejected by electorates in other countries; in the US, a desire for radical, disruptive, drain-the- swamp change swept Donald Trump into power, and in the UK a resistance to remaining in the EU led to Brexit.

The confidence-and-supply arrangement may have ensured a slightly bockety but generally stable government throughout the uncertainties of the Brexit, but it also reinforced the perception that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were jointly running the show -  despite the latter’s strenuous efforts to pull off a Schrodinger’s Cat manoeuvre by which it was simultaneously in power and in opposition.

It’s no coincidence that the two parties rising in the polls are Sinn Féin and the Greens, both regarded by a restive electorate as the alternatives to the traditional two-party hegemony and who respectively promise transformations in key issues such as housing and climate change.

The Red C poll published last Sunday revealed high levels of trust among under 35s that Sinn Féin’s policies can solve the housing crisis – the party’s spokesman Eoin Ó Broin is one of its most effective political operators. And it is a multi-stranded crisis which traverses every section of society, including among others rough sleepers, homeless families, students, young people unable to get a first foot onto the property ladder, long-distance commuters.

‘How do you solve a problem like Mary Lou?’

Gerry Adams, ever-dogged by the shadow of the IRA and notoriously shaky on economic subjects has been replaced by Mary Lou McDonald, a personable politician and wily debater.

On Monday night during the seven-leader debate on RTÉ, she drew applause, cheers and laughter from the audience for gesturing towards Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar and declaring:

Listening to these men, you’d never imagine that one had crashed the economy and that the other is so fiscally responsible that he’s producing the most expensive hospital in the world.”

Varadkar and Martin looked on stony-faced. How to solve a problem like Mary Lou?

Declarations that neither of their parties will “do business” with her in government formation talks simply serves to feed Sinn Féin’s favourite narrative of being the outsiders, the plucky underdogs shunned by the establishment.

It’s a somewhat disingenuous narrative to be sure, given that Sinn Féin declined to participate in government talks last time around – one TD remarked after the 2016 election that he didn’t “fancy going into government” given the overall result.

They definitely fancy it this time around. But there’s many a slip twixt cup and the Cabinet table.

Until the December by-election and its unexpected victory in Dublin Mid-West, Mary Lou McDonald wasn’t having the best time in the leader’s chair. Poor local and European results last summer followed a disastrous presidential campaign in 2018, and all the while the party was dealing with internal squabbles and external pressures to re-enter talks with the DUP to restore a moribund Stormont.

Being a headline-grabbing leader of the opposition is easy. Being Tánaiste of the minor party in coalition is a considerably more challenging and perilous job, as Eamon Gilmore, Joan Burton and Michael McDowell would readily attest.

Now that the opinion polls have ushered them off the sidelines and into the centre-circle, the spotlight on everything from the party’s internal structure to its manifesto will intensify in the final week and a half of the campaign.

In the past few days McDonald has – with varying degrees of plausibility – fielded questions on the extent of the role that the party’s unelected Ard Comhairle plays in decision-making on policies.

And much attention is likely to be lavished for the rest of the campaign on Sinn Féin’s extremely lavish promises to the electorate.

Its manifesto is awash with money; the party pledges to spend an eye-watering €22 billion in current and capital spending over the next five years, give away €2.4 billion in tax reductions every year, and raise €3.8 billion in tax increases every year, while miraculously running an annual surplus reaching €3.4 billion by 2025.

There is still a considerable cohort of SBSF voters – Anyone But Sinn Féin – who will be leery of such promised largesse, who are unconvinced the party has cut ties with what many view as its ‘una voce, uno duce’ command structure controlled by an unelected Ard Comhairle, and who are uncomfortable with the trenchant calls for a unity poll within five years.

The Shinner Surge could be real this time, buoyed by angry young voters who look to the future rather than back to the party’s darker past and by traditional Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil voters irked by being presented with a binary choice and hungry for something new.

Or it could fall away, eroded by concerns over a post-Brexit economy which sees flirtatious supporters failing to vote or simply returning to more familiar suitors.

Whichever way the electoral dice fall, the political landscape has changed for good as Sinn Féin tread a treacherous tightrope between being popular and populist.

And outraged father superiors lamenting that Mary Lou’s not an asset to the democratic abbey should cop on that this outdated refrain is only going to fall on deaf, indifferent ears.

Lise Hand is a regular contributor to for General Election 2020. Check out all her work here

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