The social divide in Irish politics – March 2022 Opinion Poll2022.03.28
A long-running question in Irish politics has been whether there is a left-right political spectrum among voters here. For many years, the landscape in Ireland has been dominated by two large parties in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, neither of whom have been traditionally categorised as being on the left side of the political spectrum.
The rise of Sinn Féin has been seen by some commentators as Irish voters moving towards a more traditional European left versus right political balance, with Sinn Féin supposedly providing the more left-wing ideology. However, there are question marks about this narrative. Specifically, over how much of Sinn Fein’s policy is of a socialist or left-wing nature, and also to what extent its supporters are really more left-leaning than those of other parties.
When we look at the attitudes and opinions of voters supporting Sinn Féin and compare them with voters supporting the more traditional and established parties of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the variances don’t naturally fall into a left-right spectrum.
For example, we regularly see in polling that some Sinn Féin supporters suggest they want lower taxes at the expense of public services, or as seen in today’s poll, that they are in favour of more funding for defence, or even that they don’t support a United Ireland. It appears that their support for the party is not really due to a more left-wing ideology and is not even entirely aligned with current Sinn Féin policy.
Rather it appears that Sinn Féin’s support is largely from those who feel they haven’t benefited from the establishment, who no longer trust it and who believe the political system as it stands is broken.
In our polling data, there is a clear connection between the social class grading used in social and political polling, and voter support for Sinn Féin. Social class grading looks at the head of household’s occupation and allocates people into different class groups based on their education, job type and responsibilities. It classifies different groups from managerial, professionals, through clerical and administrative roles, to skilled manual workers, unskilled manual workers and finally to those unemployed.
Only among the managerial and professional class grouping does Sinn Fein support fall behind that of the other two parties, where it secures 17% support. As you move through those groupings support steadily increases, with a high of 42% among semi/unskilled workers, casual workers, or unemployed people. The opposite trend is apparent for the other two traditional establishment parties, with support highest among the professional managerial group and lowest among the semi/unskilled workers, casual workers, or the unemployed.
Sinn Féin also sees its greatest support among those traditionally seen as the squeezed middle. That is those in the 35-54 year old age group, most often trying to deal with the costs of raising a family, commuting, childcare and housing and so on.
This correlation underpins again that the fault lines in Irish politics in 2022 are not really ideological. They are not about the left and right. Instead they are about those who are doing well or comfortably getting by, and those who feel left behind by the establishment, unable to afford rent, bereft of options for buying a home and struggling to make ends meet.
Rightly or wrongly, they see Sinn Féin as their final hope in terms of making a difference to their lives. After all, they have tried the other parties, and in their minds, nothing has improved for them personally. In fact, the rising cost of living means that it is getting worse.
Many of the younger voters in this group don’t understand why the government and the political system cannot react more quickly to make changes to fix problems. They have seen and been part of actions such as the marriage equality and abortion referendums that in their eyes made change happen quickly. They have also watched the government react quickly to counter the COVID-19 pandemic, and change processes and procedures at speed to help refugees from Ukraine. So why can it not react in the same way to solve the housing crisis, or better help those who cannot make ends meet?
Polling suggests that the public’s greatest issue right now is the rising cost of living, far surpassing the war in Ukraine or COVID-19. Without significant action and response by the government, this is only likely to further increase the numbers of those in society struggling to get by, and in turn, those likely to turn to Sinn Féin.
Yet history has told us that responding to such a crisis isn’t simple. Governments may not have an easy fix for such a complicated issue, particulary given the role of global factors such as supply chain issues. And any direct financial support could also serve to make the problem worse in the long term, even if it provides some much-needed respite for those in difficulty in the here and now.