Monday, 21 February 2011

Ireland Votes: Guide to the Irish Election

There are no by-elections this week, though next week holds for us a bumper crop, so look forward to that, so for something different we’re going to take a look abroad.

Those who know me will know that my interest in British politics is only the tip of the iceberg, I have an incredibly broad interest in politics, but my first love is, and always has been, parties and elections in Western Europe. This Friday sees a momentous election as Ireland goes to the polls. I know that many of our readers have at least a passing interest in this election, and so this is a basic guide to the election. It won’t be as long, or as exhaustive, as our devolved elections guide, but it should give you some idea what to expect.

History of the Irish Party System

Ireland is special, and has politics like no other. The dominant political issue in Ireland for most of the 19th and early 20th century was the relationship with Britain, and the dominant party was the Irish Nationalist Party. Repeated failure to secure ‘home rule’ (essentially devolution) for the Nationalists led to the success of Sinn Fein (‘we ourselves’) in the 1918 election, who won 73/78 seats in what is now the Republic, and who took this as a mandate to secede and start a war of independence. In 1921 Ireland signed the ‘Anglo-Irish Treaty’ with the UK, which allowed Ireland to secede and become an independent nation, but which kept Northern Ireland in the UK, amongst other controversial proposals. This led to a split in Sinn Fein, between Anti-Treaty members, particularly around Eamon de Valera, and Pro-Treaty members, around Michael Collins, these two sides then went to civil war, with the pro-Treaty side winning. However after the war the scars did not simply disappear but rather the two sides formed political parties with the Anti-Treaty side forming Fianna Fail (‘Soldiers of Destiny’ or ‘Warriors of Ireland’) and the pro-Treaty side forming what would come to be known as Fine Gael (‘Family of the Irish’). This cleavage came to be that which dominated Ireland. To this day Fine Gael members will celebrate the memory of Michael Collins on his birthday or the anniversary of his death and Eamon de Valera remains a controversial, divisive, figure, loved by Fianna Fail.

Yet why did other cleavages not come to dominate the fledgling nation? Well the oldest party in Ireland is the Irish Labour Party, but the party has always come resolutely in third. The reason is that Ireland has never been an industrial economy, what industry did exist in Ireland was in the North. Ireland, therefore, never developed an urban proletariat and for most of its history the country has been rural and agrarian, recently it has come to be more service dominated, but industrial development has simply passed it by, in the main. The Irish Labour Party does exist, and is of course, important, but its support is restricted almost entirely to urban regions, the minority in Ireland. Similarly the party does not have an embedded aristocracy like the UK, and so the country never really developed a strong class divide.

On the other hand it did not develop a religious/secular divide like most Catholic countries because the country was resolutely Catholic, what Protestants remained in the country generally kept their heads down after the civil war, and Catholicism and Irish national identity came to be wrapped up to an incredible extent. Contraception was illegal until 1980, divorce was banned by the constitution until 1995 and abortion remains illegal under the constitution. The country has, of course, heavily secularised, but generally there has been a broad consensus on religion in Ireland and so there was never a need for a ‘Christian Democrat’ party, defending the values of the Church. As well as no Christian Democrat party, there is no anti-clerical liberal party, because there are almost no anti-clerical liberals.

Despite the pro-Treaty civil war win it was Fianna Fail who came to dominate. In Europe only the Swedish Social Democrats spent more of the 20th century in power. It was able to do this through a combination of nationalism (particularly with regards to Northern Ireland), a strongly agrarian viewpoint, and a ‘vertical class profile’ that is to say the party took support from every demographic of the Irish public. The party saw itself as a pragmatic party, a party of the centre, but a populist party. When classifying it people will refer to it as a liberal party or a Christian Democrat party, or a Conservative party, sometimes even a nationalist party, but in reality it is none of these things, rather it is a party that takes on policies and views from whichever ideology suits it. Sometimes its manifestos are centre-left; sometimes they are centre-right. At times the party has been able to command an absolute majority of seats, despite the supposedly proportional nature of the Irish electoral system. It has, on average, won 43% of the vote since independence, and been the largest party in every parliamentary election since 1932. In its best ever election, 1977, it won 50.6% of the vote and 84/148 seats. When it has not won majorities it has often been able to form minority governments with the support of independents. Its constant periods in power have given it unrivalled access to the levers of patronage and as such it has gained a reputation for corruption, and occasional rule-breaking (the ‘slightly constitutional party’ in the words of famed politician Sean Lemass). This is perhaps best demonstrated by former Taoiseach (PM) Charles Haughey, whose career was constantly dogged by scandal. Nonetheless the party remained popular with its fiercely loyal electorate, I was once informed by an Irish girl I met that Haughey was incredibly popular on the island she was from as he gave them electricity.

Fine Gael is as hard to classify as Fianna Fail, if anything. The party tends to be seen as more educated, and more principled but beyond that it moves around the political spectrum just like Fianna Fail. It tends to see itself as a ‘modern’ party, declaring itself the party of the ‘progressive centre’. In a revealing attempt to describe the differences between the two parties a former Fianna Fail executive member said that FF was ‘larger than life, relatively exciting, nationalistic, schemers... ready to deal with the devil himself... proud and pragmatic” but Fine Gael as “principled, educated and academic in approach, adhering strictly to the rules and unwilling to compromise on those for any reason, no matter how ‘good’.” Fine Gael is also considered to take fewer risks with public finance, whereas Fianna Fail has a less cautious streak.

Fine Gael is the only other party that has ever held the Taoiseach in Ireland, but due to Fianna Fail dominance it can only ever do this with Labour Party support. Thus the history of Irish election results is mostly Fianna Fail majority and minority governments interspersed with the occasional Fine Gael-Labour coalition. FG and Labour have never managed to govern for more than a term together before FF returns to power.

Recent events

During the 1980s Fianna Fail’s hold on government began to slip, and the country changed between FG-Labour coalitions and unstable Fianna Fail minorities. Fianna Fail had historically refused to enter coalitions, fearing diluting the party identity, and declaring coalitions to be flawed. In 1989, however, the party changed its mind on this, and entered coalition for the first time with the Progressive Democrats (PDs) a fledgling right-wing liberal party.

This opened up new possibilities for Fianna Fail. The acceptance of coalition meant it could be in power virtually constantly, switching out coalition partners on its own convenience. First the PDs, then Labour, then the Greens were brought into power with it. In so doing Fianna Fail also weakened the opposition, weakening the identity of parties, taking on useful policies and then spitting them out as mere husks. The PDs eventually ended up dissolving altogether as repeated periods in power with FF weakened the party to the point of irrelevance. Since 1989 Fianna Fail has spent only 2 and a half years out of power, from 1992 until 1995 when Labour broke its coalition with them and entered coalition with Fine Gael and the minor short-lived Democratic Left party.

This period of Fianna Fail dominance also coincided with a booming Irish economy, as the ‘Celtic Tiger’ roared. The service economy boomed, and Ireland became, in the words of the historian RF Foster, ‘the most globalised country in the world’. This rapid expanse coincided with a property boom. Due to lax planning laws it seemed everyone in Ireland was building something, and selling it at incredible prices and Ireland ended up with the worst of two worlds: property was too plentiful, and incredibly overpriced. Supply vastly outstripped demand, and when the worldwide economic downturn began the property bubble burst to stunning effect. After years of boom Ireland has suffered the worst recession in Europe. Much of the property was backed up by the banks too, and so, in order to prevent the collapse of the entire financial sector the Irish government under Taoiseach Brian Cowen agreed to guarantee every asset in the banks with taxpayers money, in doing so creating a gigantic budget deficit, in November of last year Ireland admitted it could no longer pay its bills and was bailed out by the EU and IMF.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen became increasingly unpopular too, partially due to the extraordinary anger of the public towards these events and due to his involvement in scandals. In December he turned up to a radio interview, apparently drunk, and more recently he was caught on a golf course with a lobbyist. Fianna Fail has taken the highly unusual step of removing him from the position of leader, though he remains Taoiseach, and the Greens pulled the plug on the coalition forcing it to collapse and forcing an early election on Feb 25th (the Greens had been growing increasingly fed-up of the almost farcical government anyway).

The political system

Ireland has a parliamentary system, vaguely modelled on that of the UK, there are two houses of the Oireachtas Eireann (the national parliament) the directly elected Dail Eireann (Assembly of Ireland) and the Seanad Eireann (Senate of Ireland). The latter is indirectly elected by various groups, such as the Labour Panel and the Agricultural Panel. The much more powerful Dail is elected directly by the Single Transferable Vote system. STV was put into place by us Brits to guarantee Protestant representation in the South, since then there have been two referenda on changing to FPTP (an idea in no way connected to the fact that this would have given FF an almost permanent majority!) but they have both failed.

The Irish version of STV features 43 constituencies of 3-5 seats. Voters rank candidates on the ballot paper, a quota is assigned (by dividing all the votes by the number of seats + 1). If any candidate gets above the quota they are deemed elected, and votes ‘above’ the quota are transferred to other candidates. If no candidate reaches the worst performing candidate is eliminated and their votes transferred. This process carries on until all seats are filled. This has several effects, positive and negative:

  • It is fairly proportional
  • The system minimises ‘wasted votes’. No other system makes sure every vote is as important as STV.
  • As well as proportional it is localist – members of political parties must not only compete with other parties but with other candidates from the same party. A Fianna Fail candidate must demonstrate why they should be elected rather than other Fianna Fail candidates. This creates an interesting dynamic of intra-party competition, and candidates often campaign on very local issues. When Fianna Fail has attempted to change the system to FPTP they have often argued that the system would make politics more national.
  • The system allows voters to vote for independents easily, and Ireland has the highest number of independents in the first world by far. Independents have often been important in terms of the party system too – many FF minority governments have survived or fallen upon the support of independents.

Indeed, the localist aspect is a fascinating one which is oft criticised. Exit polling from the 2007 election showed that the major reason voters gave for picking their candidate was ‘constituency reasons’, at a tune of 40%. Political parties often head hunt prominent local figures because of this and analysis of voting patterns in Ireland shows a tendency towards voting for such figures regardless of party – preferences often criss and cross party lines. There is also a tendency for a family name to became important and Ireland is a land of political dynasties as shown by the Wikipedia article ‘Families in the Oireachtas’ . For example, the last finance minister was a member of a true dynasty, Brian Leninhan Jr’s grandfather Patrick Lenihan was a TD (equivalent of MP) from 1965 to 1970, his son, Brian Leninhan Sr., was a TD from 1973 until 1997, and a very prominent minister who at one point just missing out on becoming President (in fact Leninhan Sr. holds the distinct record of being the only FF candidate for President not to win), Leninhan Jr’s sister, Mary O’Rourke is also a TD and the family tradition is continuing with his brother Conor Lenihan (marked out by some as a potential future FF leader). This is one of the less pleasant aspects of such localism.

Similarly the Independents elected are often criticised for being purely focused on constituency issues – bartering support for bills and governments on the basis of a new hospital or school for their constituency, for example, rather than for any meaningful policy changes. In some respects this system is what allows Fianna Fail dominance to operate – the party’s catch-all appeal is accentuated by its continual periods in power giving it control of the levers of patronage. Fianna Fail TDs therefore win because when they make promises on local issues voters know they are almost certain to be able to back them up. As the party with the power, the activists and the resources, Fianna Fail is also the most capable of head-hunting local talent and so Fianna Fail dominance becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Yet when the disaster of the financial crisis hit the mood has changed, and these localist characteristics have been seen as a massive cause of the crisis. Voters thus appear to be about to vote in the most partisan style they ever have. TDs apparently report that whereas almost all their previous mail was about local constituency issues, the vast majority is now about bond markets and IMF deals.

The state of the parties

Note: There are currently 166 seats in the Dail so 84 seats are required for an absolute majority.

Fianna Fail

2007 result: 41.6%/78 seats

Current polls: Generally around 16%, a poll on the 12th of Feb showed them on 12% but it’s probably an outlier

Campaign: Fianna Fail took an unusual step before the election. So fed up were they with Taoiseach Brian Cowen that they removed him as leader and made foreign minister Michael Martin leader. As it turned out this was a good move as Martin is a very capable communicator and he has done well in the role. Nonetheless the Fianna Fail brand is so irrevocably damaged that even senior members are talking of ‘managed decline’ and Martin has stated he has a ‘ten year plan’ to return to power. One thing that will be interesting to see is whether the party has become ‘transfer repellent’, that is to say, whether voters will preference almost anybody above Fianna Fail. There is a possibility that the party could be completely wiped out in Dublin, which would be a disaster for the party.

Seat projection: Most are talking in the region of 25. If the party keeps half its parliamentary party and/or beats the Labour Party into second then that will be an incredible success for the party.

Fine Gael

2007 result: 27.3%/51 seats

Current polls: 37-39%

Campaign: Fine Gael suffered a massive wobble last summer. Their leader, Enda Kenny, has a reputation as being rather dull and uninspiring, and the party was taken over in the polls by Labour. At one point there was an attempted leadership putsch against Kenny, with Fine Gael frontbenchers walking out and demanding a vote of confidence. Kenny survived however and Fine Gael has experienced a surge with almost perfect timing – just before the election campaign. A combination of well thought out policy including an aggressive deficit reduction plan and Kenny appearing to embody stability have given the party a serious boost and the party has had an incredibly positive campaign. Some are even talking about a possible overall majority for FG, though I think that this is unlikely.

Seat projection: 75-80 is probably a good shout. The party is almost certainly become the largest party for the very first time.

Irish Labour Party

2007 result: 10.1%/20 seats

Current polls: 17-23%

Campaign: For a long time the Labour Party was riding high. Last summer was particularly good for the party as their popular leader Eamon Gilmore began to be seen as a potential Taoiseach. The party began to suffer nearer to the election as its policy appeared to have gaps, and it was attacked from both the left and right. On the left the party was accused of not differing substantially from Fine Gael in deficit reduction and of giving into the terms of the IMF/EU deal, on the right it was accused of dishonesty, not being serious enough on deficit reduction, and of being likely to tax heavily. The party campaign is generally seen as a disaster and the party is accused of having given up on its main policy points and of just concentrating fire on Fine Gael. It remains to be seen whether the party will be able to reach out beyond its traditional urban regions.

Seat projection: 30-35 is probably likely. Considering the circumstances anything but a substantive increase will be seen as a failure.

Sinn Fein

2007 result: 6.9%/4 seats

Current polls: 10-12%

Campaign: Sinn Fein’s star started to rise around last November when their candidate, Pearse Doherty, gained a seat in a by-election from Fianna Fail. Doherty is a charismatic, young, intelligent politician and he was immediately made Finance Spokesman, a role in which he excelled. The party was, at one point, polling ahead of FF. Sinn Fein has declined as Gerry Adams has started poking his head up, with the SF leader making several mistakes (not knowing the VAT rate for example). SF’s position on the deficit is to default on at least some of it, which, if nothing else, is at least original and attention grabbing. The party suffers several issues though. For one the party’s vote is usually restricted almost entirely to the area bordering Northern Ireland (for obvious reasons), and all four of their current seats are in constituencies which border the province. The party will need to break out into other regions to gain any decent number of seats. It also demonstrates ‘transfer repellance’, people either love Sinn Fein, or rank it last. It remains to be seen whether it can stop this pattern. Finally the party usually polls better than it actually performs.

Seat projection: Around 10 is probably a good shout.

Green Party

2007 result: 4.7%/6 seats

Current polls: 1-2%

Campaign: The Green Party entered government with FF after the 2007 election (despite the fact that they said they wouldn’t). The Greens were apparently getting bashed around a bit for this decision before the recession, since they have become completely unpopular. The party has been accused of amateurism in government and has often had to support policies that go against its ethos. The party has also been seen as propping up a highly unpopular Fianna Fail administration. Almost the entirety of the party’s vote is focused in Dublin. Traditionally the party has often gained seats due to transfers, they are less likely to have such luck here.

Seat projection: 1-2. Incumbents Trevor Sargent (former leader) and John Gormley (current leader) still retain some of their popularity, and one of them should be able to hold on at least. They will likely need to spend a long time rebuilding, like their FF allies.

United Left Alliance

2007 result: 0.6%/0 seats (Socialist Party result)

Current polls: N/A

Campaign: The ULA is not so much a party such as a loose alliance of left-wing groups. Most of the new party is vaguely Trotskyist in outlook. The group was unable to register ‘United Left Alliance’ with the electoral commission quickly enough and so candidates will appear under their own party names, or as independents. The alliance’s best chance of a seat is in Dublin West where Joe Higgins is standing. Higgins has been a TD in this constituency before and leads the Trotskyist Socialist Party. He is also currently a MEP for Dublin.

Seat projection: 1-3. Higgins will almost certainly be re-elected, but the Alliance has not really taken off. It may get one or two other candidates elected, but it is hard to tell, as, not being a party, it does not appear in polls.


2007 result: 8.4%/7 seats (2 elected as Progressive Democrats, but party dissolved, 5 independents)

Polls: Around 14% (figure includes ULA vote)

Campaign: One of the surprising aspects of the Irish crisis is that no major movement has appeared to rival the established parties. It is difficult to get a handle on how independents and others will do as, obviously, they are not a party.

Government scenarios

Assuming FG doesn’t win a majority then by far the most likely government outcome is a FG-Labour coalition, but this coalition has some problems. Fine Gael has become increasingly right-wing in recent years and particularly the party’s newest intake of TDs, most notably Leo Varadkar, are stridently right-wing and do not have any particular love for the Labour Party. Varadkar is often highly critical of Labour, for example suggesting that ‘every Labour gain is a new tax’. With FF down in the doldrums the nature of party competition has changed too, the goal is no longer to defeat FF and reach government, but to defeat each other and maximise influence. Fianna Fail are down to their most loyal and hard to convince supporters, there are few votes to be gained there.The increasing bad blood and big Fine Gael poll leads has led some to talk about the possibility of a Fine Gael minority government; in some scenarios, with the support of independents, in others with the support of Fianna Fail. I doubt both these scenarios for several reasons:

  • Whoever forms the next government will need to push through a highly ambitious deficit reduction plan and take some really tough decisions. Being a minority government in this situation is intrinsically dangerous as independents or Fianna Fail may withdraw support at anytime. Coalition government, on the other, is much more stable and provides a large majority. Hard decisions will not result in Labour leaving because they are likely to be just as tarred, or even more tarred, by such decisions.
  • Independents are intrinsically flakey, and in any case will spend their time demanding goodies for their constituencies when the government is in a situation where cash-flow is beyond tight.
  • Fianna Fail is unlikely to be the most stable ally after the election plunged, as it is, into a deep crisis. It will require all of Michael Martin’s political skills to keep the party acting like a cohesive force, and being in a position where they are forced to support their old nemesis would be incredibly embarrassing for the party. It would also reflect badly on Fine Gael to deal with such an unpopular party. People will say they did not vote Fianna Fail out of office only for them to continue to influence government from the opposition benches.
  • The pain in Ireland is far from over, nor will it be reparable in a five year term, if a minority government survived that long. A Fine Gael minority government would face an emboldened Labour on the opposition benches, with a popular and talented leader and a populist message it would not be a difficult task for Labour to gain popularity and win the next election. Sharing government also means sharing the blame and so coalition with Labour removes the greatest threat to a second term for Enda Kenny.

Nonetheless, at this stage it seems incredibly unlikely that anyone but Enda Kenny will be Taoiseach after the dust settles.

Irish Politics: Changed for good?

Political scientists talk of two types of elections when these sorts of scenarios are in play. A ‘realigning election’ is where the voting patterns of the general public completely change in one vast push, never to be the same again. For example in the 1964 US Presidential election the South, formerly the bastion of the Democratic Party suddenly voted Republican for the first time. The Democrats won, but this set the scene for decades of Republican dominance as the US South continued to vote Republican by the drove. Alternatively there is such a thing as a ‘deviating election’ where in one startling moment everything changes, only for normality to return the following election. For example in the 1990 election in the Canadian province of Ontario the third party, the NDP, suddenly formed a government for the first time, but in 1995 it collapsed back to third party status, never to return.

The Irish election of 2011 will certainly be a historic election, but whether it is realigning or deviating we shall have to wait and see. Some are talking of the end of civil war politics and a new ‘normal’ divide between left and right. Certainly civil war politics has lost its attraction for a long time now, especially with a consensus having been reached on Northern Ireland. I am cynical of such extremes, but I do think that something has now changed, that Fianna Fail will never be dominant in the way it was ever again.

There is also much talk of changing the political system. Talk of a new political system and constitution, even a constitutional convention. Talk of abolishing the Senate, changing the electoral system to a mixed system including lists to ‘nationalise’ politics, and changing the relationship between government and parliament. features some interesting discussions and ideas. We may be about to see the emergency of a ‘Second Republic’. Certainly Irish politics is likely to become very interesting for the next few years. May you live in interesting times indeed.


When will the result be known? STV is a complex electoral system which means it takes a while to count. An exit poll will be available on Friday night, but last time it took the Irish three days to count the result, even with the use of electronic counting machines. Results will probably be final by next Monday. I’ll probably post a short (well shorter) post on the results when they’re finalised.

Where can I watch coverage? Probably the best place is RTE, Ireland’s public service broadcaster. I streamed some of the 2007 election coverage from the website and had a rollicking good time (I’m a nerd). There is a live blog here: and it looks like that page will have a stream of the mammoth 3 day coverage too. The RTE Elections twitter feed is also very good.

Why haven’t you put any of the accents on the Irish words? Laziness, mostly.


  1. The good news is that BBC Parliament will be simulcasting the Irish election LIVE from 1055 GMT on Saturday. As to calculating seats won, my best theory is to calculate how many quotas each party will get in each constituency and then add them all up. My latest forecast is FG 70, Lab 40, FF 30, SF 12, Ind 11, Green 1, ULA 1

  2. Nice Blog

    Just a point regarding the Sinners, Doherty winning the bye-election gave them 5 seats. Also their seats are not just around the border, Martin Ferris is a Sinn Fein TD in Kerry North and Aengus Ó Snodaigh in Dublin South Central

  3. Thank you for this explanation - Irish politics have always been an utter mystery to me.

    No longer!


  4. Great post. Some notes.

    1. Labour has not always come third - the last time it didn't was in 1987 when it came 4th behind the PDs.
    2. Abortion is not illegal under the constitution. The right to abortion is very strictly circumscribed by the Constitution to cases in which the woman's life is in danger. No government has legislated for this right.
    3. Brian Lenihan Sr. died in 1995. Brian Lenihan Jr. won his seat at the ensuing by-election in 1996. (Taoiseach Brian Cowen and the probable next Taoiseach Enda Kenny also won their seats in by-elections upon the deaths of their fathers. Fianna Fáil tried the same tactic in the 2009 Dublin South by-election, but it failed.)
    4. Mary O'Rourke is actually sister of the late Brian Lenihan Sr., and thus aunt of Brian Lenihan Jr. and Conor Lenihan.
    5. As above, Sinn Féin has two seats in constituencies far from the Northern Ireland border, in Dublin South-Central and Kerry North.

    The Irish Labour Party's campaign can be compared to that of Nick Clegg in 2010 - a personality-fuelled surge that fell down due to criticism of their wobbly policies.
    Fine Gael are fighting like the Tories did in 1992 - the soundbite of the election has been their description of Labour as a "seriously high-tax party".
    Fianna Fáil have given up. According to RTÉ, they had no campaign events today, three days before polling.

  5. Yeah I was reading some of the reactions to the leaders debate on the fantastic forum last night, and the consensus on Martin's performance appeared to be that he'd insane. Of course, as anyone who reads knows, its a very anti-FF sort of place, but that still isn't promising.