Politics: Hang in there, Charlie

Charlie Haughey has been of the belief in recent months, we understand, that the election could be run and won on a one issue platform - the one issue being the Northern Ireland question. This proves, once again, that politicians never learn anything from past experience. Jack Lynch tried that one on in 1973 and came a cropper as prices and jobs took over as the main themes of the campaign after the first week. Prices and jobs will always be the, central questions for these are tangible factors in the lives of the electorate - for the most part the Northern Ireland issue is an abstraction.


But even if there had been any hope of playing the Northern Ireland card as a trump in an election, the EEC summit has ended that. Haughey can no longer convince the electorate that there is something significant and historic going on in the talks between him and Mrs. Thatcher, even though there very probably is.


Charlie Haughey has a credibility problem at the best of times. Now in the worst of times - i.e. those in which he is being "assisted" by Brian Lenihan - that problem is all the more acute. There is no chance of his winning an election on the basis of the electorate's trust in his personal handling of any critical issue - he can win only on the basis of performance. On this criteria his chances of success are slender.


In the March issue of Magill we argued that the opinion polls, contrary to the impression apparently created, show that there is a very considerable swing against Fianna Fail. While the polls on voting intentions show the Opposition parties and Fianna Fail apparently neck and neck, the high "don't know" factor (running around 20 per cent) disguises the reality of a substantial swing to the Fine Gael and Labour parties. Almost two people out of three are dissatisfied with the performance of the Government; the situation is even worse in the key "swing" sectors of the electorate - i.e. among the middle classes, the large farmers and the Dublin region. This cannot be surprising given the high rate of inflation over the last two years and the record level of unemployment.


One factor that seemed to favour Fianna Fail was the electorate's memory of the Coalition's performance in Government which scare them off voting for Fine Gael or Labour, believing them to be even worse. The polls refute that contention. Forty one per cent believe an alternative Government under Garret FitzGerald would handle the economic affairs of the country better, as compared with thirty four per cent who believe that the present Government would do a better job. On the crucial issue of prices, forty three per cent believe that an alternative Government would do better as compared with just twenty seven per cent who believe the present Government would.


While the indications clearly are that Fianna Fail would lose an election now - it might well be a landslide against them akin to that in Fianna Fail's favour in 1977 - all is not lost. There are signs that some of the large constituencies, notably Carlow-Kilkenny, Meath, Wexford, Kildare, etc., could be swung back within the Fianna Fail fold and some seats saved if Fine Gael's alliance with Labour is played up. The farmers are frightened out of their wits by Labour.


Haughey obviously believes that a sizeable package from Brussels will bring back the farmer vote but the size of that package, even if it amounts to 12 per cent, will be insignificant in terms of the drop in,income the farmers have suffered over the last year and will therefore make little difference. He would be better off showing up the contradictions in the Fine Gael alliance with Labour and its wooing of the farming vote.


Then there is the problem in Cork city and county. He should devote a lot of personal attention to this region over the next few months and try to cajole Jack Lynch back as a candidate in one of the Cork city constituencies, where he would certainly ensure an extra seat for Fianna Fail and possibly influence the vote elsewhere.


But above all Charlie Haughey should hang on. There is nothing to be lost be deferring the election until 1982 - the situation could not possibly be worse. In another year's time he may have got the economy moving again, inflation may be down and unemployment may have dropped. In the meantime he should cut out all the ridiculous publicity gimmicks, put a gag on Brian Lenihan, Tommy McEllistrum and a few others and start governing the country for a change instead of running a covert election campaign. It would also help if he indicated strongly that there was not going to be an election this year - then his every word and action would not be viewed in crude electoral terms.