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Sinn Féin will have to compromise if Mary Lou McDonald is to make history

Irish Times/Ipsos poll: Mary Lou McDonald is voters’ clear choice for Taoiseach, but her party fares worse

poll 2023

If yesterday’s findings of the latest Irish Times/Ipsos opinion poll confirmed that Sinn Féin is maintaining a strong lead in the polls, then today’s data shows that while large numbers of voters have reservations about the party being in power, greater numbers want to see them leading the next government.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald is the clear top choice for taoiseach, backed by almost a third of voters (32 per cent), strongly mirroring her party’s vote share. But McDonald’s appeal goes beyond Sinn Féin – about a fifth of Labour, Green and independent voters name her as their top pick for the job.

By contrast, the other two contenders, Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin, are chosen by less than a fifth of all voters (18 per cent each).

There are scraps of comfort for the Government parties. Of the options presented to respondents to the poll, the continuation of the current three-party Coalition is marginally the most popular – the choice of 27 per cent of voters.


The next most popular choice is “a government led by Sinn Féin without either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael”, selected by 25 per cent of voters. A Sinn Féin-Fianna Fáil Coalition was favoured by 11 per cent and a Sinn Féin-Fine Gael Coalition by just 6 per cent.

Look at the aggregate of all this and 41 per cent of people favour some form of Coalition government led by Sinn Féin, 38 per cent favour a Coalition involving Fianna Fáil and 33 per cent favour one involving Fine Gael. It’s a clear lead for Sinn Féin – but hardly an insurmountable one.

And remember, this is now a fractured party and political landscape in which multiparty coalitions will have to be painstakingly put together. Sinn Féin are out in front for sure – but it will have to negotiate and compromise and concede and wheedle with other parties if McDonald is to make history and become the first woman and Sinn Féin taoiseach.

The polls suggest that outcome – which would have seemed incredible even a decade ago – is odds on; but the data also suggests it is not a foregone conclusion, not least because it depends on the actions of others.

The section of the poll gauging negative sentiment sheds further light on this. It shows that Sinn Féin and the Greens are the parties with the strongest negative attitudes towards them. When respondents were asked which party they would not like to see in government, the Greens and Sinn Féin tied for first place on 31 per cent each. Fine Gael was at 24 per cent, and Fianna Fáil at 25 per cent.

Break that down by party choices and consider the inevitable post-election efforts to form a Government. Would Fianna Fáil do a Coalition deal with Sinn Féin? Almost half of Fianna Fáil voters (47 per cent) nominate Sinn Féin as the party they would not like to see in government. And from the previous question about government preferences – just 14 per cent of Fianna Fáil voters favour this option. Now all this measures is the views of Fianna Fáil voters, not Fianna Fáil members. But the consent of Fianna Fáil members, given in a special ardfheis, would be required for any Coalition deal with Sinn Féin (or anyone else). These numbers suggest that cannot be taken for granted.

The poll makes clear that the desire for change among many voters, such a powerful engine behind the Sinn Féin surge at the last election, remains strong. Nearly four in 10 voters (38 per cent) say it is time for “radical change”. But a substantially larger proportion (51 per cent) say they are in favour of “moderate change”. Eight per cent are wary of change.

This does not break down as neatly along party lines as you might think: 37 per cent of Sinn Féin voters favour moderate change, while 19 per cent of Fianna Fáil voters say it is time for radical change. But whatever way you cut it, the moderates, the incrementalists, those cautious about throwing the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to changing the way the country is run – they are, for now anyway, in the majority.

The results from the questions on the budget will not be welcomed in the Merrion Street headquarters of the Department of Finance and the Department of Public Expenditure, likely as they are to generate further pressure for spending from nervous Fine Gaelers and Fianna Fáilers seeking to buy their way back into the public’s affections.

There is strong support for immediate help with the cost of living (52 per cent), while reducing tax (18 per cent) and increasing spending on public services (19 per cent) are far more popular than the option of saving surplus resources to invest in the future (8 per cent). The political constituency for prudence – a key message of ministers Paschal Donohoe and Michael McGrath – does not look like an expansive one. A difficult budget process just got more difficult for them.