By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — As the countdown to the election entered its final stage the opinion polls are showing Bertie Ahern and Fianna Fail are an unstoppable steamroller and all that is at issue is whether they are set for a landslide or will have to negotiate a coalition deal after Friday’s ballot.
The numbers that might give the opposition any hope of an alternative rainbow alliance are melting away.
As the momentum of a FF juggernaut has emerged in the polls, the opposition vote appears to have splintered and smaller parties and independents were gaining.
While the polls are giving conflicting messages about the size of the FF surge, what started as a Bertie bounce as a result of his huge popularity now appears to be developing the impetus of a Bertie bandwagon as he continues to power walk on a storming tour of constituencies.
Concerned about supporter complacency and a possible backlash, FF maintains it is struggling and won’t reach the crucial 84 seats.
Never miss an issue of The Irish Echo
Subscribe to one of our great value packages.
However, Tanaiste Mary Harney warned the polls indicated a possible 90 FF seats in the 166 seat Dail — and that was before the latest surge to 51 percent.
Former Taoiseach John Bruton intervened in the campaign to say the country is “sleepwalking” into a “disastrous” repeat of the 1977 landslide majority of Jack Lynch that led to the “economic blight” of the 1980s, with high unemployment and emigration.
The warnings about a possible return to single-party government have so far fallen on deaf ears despite the polls showing just one in four favor an overall FF majority.
Three IMS polls in Independent group newspapers, using more than 1,100 face-to-face interviews with simulated ballot papers, have seen the FF first-preference vote jump from 47 to 51 percent. Usually in a campaign FF sees its vote ebb away as polling date approaches.
However, an Ireland on Sunday/ICM telephone poll of 1,500 people gave a conflicting message and suggested FF support could be as low as 43 percent — a result that would mean another coalition.
All the pundits are agreed that Ahern is a shoo-in as taoiseach in whatever administration emerges when the Dail reconvenes on June 6. The bookies have driven the odds on him to a dead-cert prediction of 50 to 1 on.
So far only “semi-detached” election pacts have emerged. Ahern pledged FF preferences to the PDs, but Harney hasn’t reciprocated. Similarly, Fine Gael leader Michael Noonan has called for his supporters to go down the ticket to Labor and the Greens, but Labor’s Ruairi Quinn is standing aloof and going it alone.
For Fine Gael, which got almost 28 percent in 1997, the polls are indicating a looming disaster. The party is down to 18 percent (IMS) or 22 percent (ICM).
Noonan is trailing at 30 percent to Ahern’s 68 percent in the leadership popularity league. If the polls are accurate, he is likely to be toppled after the election and the party’s representation plunges from its current 54 TDs.
Both polls give the Labur Party 10 percent, similar to its 1997 result. There is no sign of a return to the high Dick Spring tide of 1992, when it got nearly 20 percent first preferences.
Many had predicted that Sinn Fein had peaked early and would suffer from the fallout from the Colombia Three controversy and perceptions of involvement in vigilantism. But the latest IMS poll shows them boosted by three points to 7 percent. This could give the party more than the three seats they have predicted. If Martin Ferris succeeds in North Kerry, it could end up the only one of the 42 constituencies where FF will have no TD.
The vagaries of transfers, a stayaway vote of up to 35 percent in an electorate with an increasing record of apathy and the influences of personalities and local issues will ensure the polls and predictions will be wide of the mark in many constituencies.
The Green’s are hoping to at least double their two seats and a number of new independents are strongly tipped.
Those go-it-alone candidates who could make their mark in 29th Dail are in Galway West (Dana Rosemary Scallon), Mayo (Dr. Jerry Crowley on a medical services’ ticket), Meath (former Labor TD Brian Fitzgerald) and Sligo-Leitrim (Marian Harkin on a regional development ticket).