The text of my column from tonight’s Evening Herald (Mon Sept 17th)
Irish politics is a zero sum game. If the government is doing badly; then the opposition is doing well, and vice versa.
This makes the coming Dáil term just as vital for the opposition as for the government.
But which element of the opposition is set to fare better? The balance between Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin is almost as much a zero sum game as that between them and the government.
While the occasional opinion poll shows them in the high teens, Sinn Féin’s vote in the ballot box has remained, at best, stubbornly in the low teens. It did get over 13% at the Presidential election, but failed to break the 10% barrier at the General Election.
The question for the Shinners is whether they are a leftish haven for disaffected Labour voters or a centrist alternative to Fianna Fáil. While its instincts may be to try to do both, it is hard to see that tactic working.
On the left they are in competition with the ULA, several Independents and what is left of Joe Higgin’s Socialists.
On the other side they have Fianna Fáil, which insists on just not going away. The fact that FF has not seen any particular advance in its fortunes in the polls should come as no surprise given the scale of the hatred it engendered.
The past 18 months has been about Fianna Fáil stabilising its position. It has put a floor under its decline, which was no small task. The issue now is if it can recover former ground.
While FF may skirmish with SF over ex FF voters who went to Labour, the main battle will be fought elsewhere and with another enemy. Surveys suggest that up to 40% of those who said they voted FF in 2007 switched to FG in 2011.
This sizeable group are still angry and hurt. They have not been ready to listen to Fianna Fáil so far. Will they become disenchanted over the coming months with Enda Kenny and Fine Gael as it struggles to deliver on its election promises?
Will this be sufficient? Will the disenchantment be enough to allow them to listen to anything the party has to say, never mind be convinced by it? These are questions taxing Fianna Fail reps at their think in today and tomorrow.
The opposition parties and independents will also need to consider the competition they face from the emerging, and varied, opposition within government.
It ranges from Brian Hayes and Joan Burton’s fighting over pensioners to FG backbenchers bemoaning its failure to take on the public sector.
The greatest challenge, though, may come from within the Labour Party. There seems to be something about becoming chairman of the smaller party in government that makes the holder think they are the deputy leader of the opposition. I call it “Dan Boyle Syndrome”.
As a first time Deputy; sitting on the government backbenches; the new Labour Chairman may gaze longingly at the other side of the Dáil wishing he were there opposing and criticising the current Government, but he isn’t.
The public gets the difference between government and opposition. They understand the fundamental truth of Mario Cuomo’s famous maxim: “you campaign in poetry but you govern in prose”.
If he thinks doing solo runs will firewall him from the approaching barrage of criticism and unpopularity, then he is in for a nasty surprise. All he needs to do is Google “Dan Boyle” and “election results” to see how these tactics failed.
FG and Lab TDs would do well to heed the words of Mary Harney: “Even the worst day in government is better than the best day in opposition”. This may seem unlikely, but it is the case, especially if you believe politics is about improving things.
If they doubt it, then they only need call the Marine Hotel and ask any Fianna Fáil TD.