Michael Noonan: largely responsible for FG's popularity

THE outcome of the general election may already be decided, but it's clear from recent opinion polls that there is still a lot to play for. We know (as much as you can ever know anything in politics) that the next government will be made up of Fine Gael and Labour. Yet despite that, Thursday's Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll threw up more questions than answers.

The first, most obvious, question is whether Fianna Fáil at 17% was down seven points or up four. It was certainly down seven on the last Irish Times poll in September when the party was at 24%. But, given everything that has happened since September, there is a strong argument that the most recent Red C poll (in the Irish Sun) is a better yard-stick. It was carried out only a fortnight ago and when it came to the performances of Fine Gael, Labour, Sinn Féin and the Green Party, there was little difference between both polls.

The Sun poll had Fianna Fáil at a miserable 13%. In that context, 17% doesn't appear quite as awful and suggests that Brian Cowen's barnstorming performances of recent times may have had a positive impact in shoring up the base.

There is, of course, an element of grasping at straws about this. Support levels of 17% (and just 11% in Dublin) would be disastrous in a general election for Fianna Fáil. But there were many in the party who were relieved it wasn't worse given the fallout from the EU/IMF intervention and the draconian December budget.

Opposition figures privately expect Fianna Fáil to be in the low- to mid-20s come the general election. Although that is far from guaranteed, it is possible from this poll to see how that could yet happen, given the public anger, particularly with 34% of the voters yet to make up their minds. Much obviously depends on Brian Cowen's performance and his success at raising questions about the government-in-waiting.

Fine Gael will be happy that the poll – which shows it up six points since September to 30% – confirms recent Red C polls in both the Sun and Sunday Business Post which had it in clear first place.

Michael Noonan's performances as finance spokesman are clearly a factor in the party's showing and it seems to be catching up on Labour in Dublin, where constituency polls previously were showing Fine Gael failing to make gains.

After a couple of years of being outsmarted by Labour, there is a feeling that Fine Gael's tactics in recent weeks have been better than its putative coalition partner and that its more measured approach to the EU/IMF intervention in particular has appealed to middle-class voters.

But while those positives are significant, the reality is that Fine Gael is currently just three percentage points ahead of its 2007 general election performance, despite Fianna Fáil dropping 25 points in that period. And that is a desperately poor performance. It won't cost the party the next general election, but it will cost it a lot of seats, both in the Dáil and around the cabinet table. Enda Kenny's position is secure as party leader and he will be the next taoiseach. But it's clear that a large percentage of the electorate is wholly unconvinced by him?as his dissatisfaction rating of 62% demonstrates. Imagine where Fine Gael would have been in the polls under Garret FitzGerald in the 1980s if Fianna Fáil was at 17%.

There are grounds for concern within the Labour Party at Thursday's poll result. It's not the eight-point drop from September to 25%. That 33% rating never seemed realistic. And the Labour leadership would take your hand off if you offered it 25% support in the general election.

The worry for Labour comes in the small print, whereby just 55% of its supporters are definite about their intentions to vote for the party, which contrasts badly with the other three main parties.

That seems to confirm the belief, held across the political divide, that the huge increase in support for Labour may be soft.

This might explain why Labour did not poll as well in both the 2009 local elections and the recent Donegal South-West by-election as it did in opinion polls just prior to the contests.

Time will tell whether Labour has simply stalled temporarily or peaked too early. (Today's Red C poll may throw further light on that.) Whatever it is, Labour is going to have a seriously good election – probably its best ever.

But there is a feeling in both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil that Labour and Eamon Gilmore are struggling to cope with the increased scrutiny applied by the media in recent weeks. Tactically, there have to be doubts about the type of language used by the Labour Party, which raises an obvious question from voters: if you think the country is banjaxed, what's the point in putting you into government?

It's a tricky one for Labour. If it goes for the "responsible, in the national interest approach", it risks being outflanked by a resurgent Sinn Féin. But if it tries to out-do Sinn Féin and its "burn the bondholders" rhetoric, it could turn off middle-class voters, the party's strongest demographic.

It's difficult to know what to make of the bounce that Sinn Féin has enjoyed since its victory in Donegal. Can it last in the white heat of a general election campaign? Can it deliver the equivalent return in seats?

In theory, support levels of 15% should bring in a minimum of 25 seats. But in the last general election, the party attracted 7% of the vote but won just 2.4% of the seats.

With the other main parties buying into the need to reduce the deficit by 2014, Sinn Féin has carved out a nice niche for itself as the anti-cuts party. There seems little doubt Sinn Féin will gain seats but there are serious question marks as to whether it can get to double figures.

For that reason, speculation about a Labour-Sinn Féin-independent left coalition is pie-in-the-sky.

Everything still points to Fine Gael-Labour. The general election is all over bar the shouting, but there is a helluva lot of shouting still to be done.