Main Irish opposition surged into 12-point lead as election called

DUBLIN (Reuters) – Ireland’s main opposition party, Fianna Fail, surged into a 12-point lead over the governing Fine Gael party according to an opinion poll that was published on Sunday but mainly conducted before Prime Minister Leo Varadkar called a snap election.

Varadkar called the Feb. 8 election on Tuesday, kicking off a campaign that will pit his party’s record on Brexit and Ireland’s fast-growing economy against struggling public services and a high cost of living, particularly involving housing.

The Sunday Times/Behaviour & Attitudes poll had put the two dominant parties of Irish politics, both center-right, level on 27% a month ago, but the poll on Sunday showed Fine Gael plummeting to 20% while its rival jumped to 32%, up five points.

However Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin played down the big lead.

“I think it’s fair to say that polls have fluctuated in the recent past and I would anticipate that the next poll will be significantly different,” he told national broadcaster RTE.

The survey of almost 1,000 eligible Irish voters was conducted between Jan. 2 and 14, the day Varadkar called the election. It marked Fine Gael’s lowest rating in Behaviour & Attitudes’ nine years of polling, and Fianna Fail’s largest-ever lead.

The poll was carried out as the government came under strong criticism from opposition parties for planning a commemoration of the British police force that fought against Irish independence a century ago. It canceled the event last week.

Other regular opinion polls conducted late last year suggested the two big parties, which have broadly similar policies on the economy and Brexit, were closely matched but that Fine Gael held a marginal lead.

Ahead of its manifesto launch this week, Martin said his party would favor spending increases over “very modest” tax cuts at a ratio of 3:1 over the lifetime of the next government and would also introduce a new scheme where the state would top up the savings of first-time home buyers.

If Sunday’s survey translated into votes on polling day, Fianna Fail would be approaching the percentage share of the vote where it could attempt to form a multi-party coalition with smaller parties rather than another “confidence and supply” deal.

Under such a cooperation deal, Fine Gael has led a minority government since 2016 with a handful of independent lawmakers and the backing of Fianna Fail from the opposition benches.

However the poll also suggested coalition options remained narrow with prospective partners the Greens up one point to 7%and Labour down two to 4%.

Sinn Fein, with whom both of the main parties refuse to govern, fell one percentage point to 19%. This left the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) just one point behind Varadkar’s Fine Gael.

(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Frances Kerry and Pravin Char)