Daily Archives: February 24, 2011

Election Preview: Ireland 2011

Election Day: follow the Irish election results on twitter now!

Ireland votes in an historic election, perhaps the most historic election in Ireland since 1932, on Friday February 25. Earth-shattering changes to Ireland’s remarkably stable party system could come out of it, even though it is far too early to tell whether this will be a turning point realignment election or only an historic but merely deviating election. Unsurprisingly, this election is being fought largely around economic matters. Anybody knows that Ireland has been one of the worst victims of the economic crisis, having suffered a huge housing bubble burst which led to Ireland becoming virtually bankrupt. As a result, it was bailed out late last year by the IMF and EU at the cost of heavy austerity policies. Those who wish for this election to mark a major change in economic policy, however, will probably be disappointed.

How it works

The lower house of Irish parliament, the Dáil Éireann, has 166 seats elected by single-transferable vote in 43 multi-member constituencies. Ireland is pretty much the textbook example of STV in the world, and it has used that system since 1921. I’ll save you the details of STV, readily available online if need be.

The STV system makes for Ireland’s high number of independents, localist politics and family dynasties. Especially in rural Ireland, local constituency issues are major voting determinants and rural voters are traditionally conservative, in the Irish case this means they’re pro-incumbent and they’ll heavily back the two dominant parties. Family names are also very important in Ireland, meaning that politics has a lot of family dynasties.

A Very Brief Political History

Ireland’s party system has been remarkably stable and is also somewhat odd for Europe. Irish politics has been dominated since the end of the Civil War by two parties which took their current names in 1926 and 1937 respectively. On one hand, the long-time hegemonic Fianna Fáil (FF, Soldiers of Destiny) and Fine Gael (FG, Family of the Irish) on the other. Both, however, do not conform the left-right divide present in almost all European countries in that both parties are big tent parties which are broadly centrist, with one more right-wing than the other. Both FF and FG can be described as patronage machines with no ideologies, though that view is slightly pessimistic. The roots of FF and FG, and by consequence the roots of modern Irish politics, lay in the Irish Civil War fought between 1922 and 1923.

Ireland was a part of the United Kingdom until the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922. Politics were dominated until 1918 by the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) whose raison-d’etre was home rule for Ireland, which then also included the Protestant counties of Ulster. The home rule bill for 26 of the 33 counties was passed in 1914 but application delayed until the end of the First World War. The exclusion of the six counties of Ulster was to be a major spur to the rise of Sinn Féin (SF), a radical party which demanded the independence of a united Irish Republic. The violent repression by London of the 1916 Easter Rising also played a major role in boosting SF’s standing in Ireland. By the time of the 1918 election in Ireland, SF, led by Éamon de Valera, won 73 of Ireland’s 105 seat in Westminster, while the IPP was reduced to a mere 6 in Ireland (22 Unionists were elected, largely in Ulster).

Following the conclusion of the Irish War of Independence, the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in December 1921. An Irish Free State, a self-governing dominion of the Empire similar to Canada would be formed but Northern Ireland could and did ‘opt-out’ from the Free State. The treaty split SF into two wings, one pro-treaty led by Michael Collins and another anti-treaty led by de Valera. This led to a Civil War which was won by the pro-treaty wing which later became the Cumann na nGaedheal, or Society of the Gaels. de Valera’s anti-treaty wing of SF adopted an abstentionist policy by the election of the 4th Dáil Éireann in 1923 at which time Cumann na nGaedheal’s W.T. Cosgrave became President of the Executive Council, a position he held for ten years.

Cumann na nGaedheal, the predecessor of the modern Fine Gael, was a broadly centre-right moderate party which accepted the Free State and partition and supported free trade. Cosgrave’s government, in power until 1932, established a peaceful democratic state, restored rule of law and ensured the political stability of Ireland.

Meanwhile, the (anti-treaty) SF, which refused to take their seats in the Dáil, split. Éamon de Valera saw more advantages in making his peace with the Free State and republicanize it from inside rather than continuing with the SF abstentionist policy. When a motion by de Valera to end the policy of abstention failed at SF’s 1926 Ard Fheis, he split from SF to create Fianna Fáil.

The parties in 1932 had clear ideological differences. FF represented a republican, nationalist, protectionist and populist ideology which supported social measures and self-sufficiency, while the Cumann na nGaedheal represented a conservative, free-trade and middle-class trend which played the ‘red card’ on FF. FF won the 1932 election, and after a peaceful transition of power, Éamon de Valera, the former enemy of the Free State, became its leader.

de Valera led a nationalist policy in his first years in office, including a trade war with England which resulted in British sanctions on Ireland’s agricultural produce. The dispute was resolved in 1938 with the signature of an Anglo-Irish Trade Agreement. Most notably, de Valera drafted a new constitution for Ireland in 1937 which replaced the Governor-General with a President, recognized the special status of the Catholic Church (the Vatican approved the constitution’s draft before the government even submitted it to a referendum) and the recognition of Irish as the national language and first official language. The 1937 Constitution’s emphasis on the use of Irish led to the modern use of terms like Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Tánaiste (a deputy PM), the Seanad (Senate) or the Dáil (lower house, its members being TDs). Ireland became a de-facto republic in 1937, but only officially became a republic in 1949. Ireland was neutral during World War II, though there remains controversy about de Valera’s appreciation of Hitler.

Cumann na nGaedheal fell into disrepair following its 1932 defeat and merged with the small agrarian National Centre Party form Fine Gael in 1933 after a brief flirtation with fascism. FG did poorly in the 1948 election, winning 20% of the vote against FF’s 42%, but FF lost 8 seats and allowed for the formation of an unlikely coalition including FG, Labour, the agrarian Clann na Talmhan, the anti-communist National Labour and finally Seán MacBride’s Clann na Poblachta. Seán MacBride, a former IRA chief of staff, had founded the Clann na Poblachta in 1946 and it quickly drew support from left-wing, radical nationalists (who felt FF had betrayed republicans by executing IRA members) and other unhappy voters. It did remarkably poorly in the 1948 snap election, called by de Valera to halt Clann na Poblachta’s rising success. FG’s John Costello, acceptable to the Clann na Poblachta, became Taoiseach.

The Costello coalition was generally successful, but was severely hurt by the flop of the Health Minister’s Mother and Child Scheme which introduced free maternity care and free healthcare for all children. Opposed by the Church, the health minister was subsequently abandoned by his colleagues. de Valera returned to power in 1951. The new FF government was forced to implement deflationary austerity measures to deal with a poor economy, which led to FF’s defeat in 1954 and a second Costello coalition with Labour and the Clann na Talmhan. The second Costello government, unable to deal with the economic crisis, has been deemed one of Ireland’s worst governments. FF, embracing free trade, returned to power with an absolute majority in 1957.

de Valera was elected President in 1959 and replaced by Seán Lemass. Lemass, who had served as de Valera’s Tánaiste played a major role in FF’s conversion to free trade and to the subsequent economic growth in Ireland as a result of the government’s new free trade-oriented policies which included tax grants and concessions for foreign firms setting up in Ireland. Though Ireland and FF remained socially conservative, Lemass’ government did liberalize society through the creation of RTÉ television and educational reforms. Lemass retired in 1966 and was succeeded by the finance minister, Jack Lynch. An easy-going and popular man, as well as the representative of a new wave of younger FF politicians who weren’t connected to the Civil War; Lynch won a new majority for FF in 1969.

Lynch lost power to a National Coalition of FG and Labour in 1973 led by Liam Cosgrave. A poor economy following the oil crash and republican anger at Cosgrave’s hard-line policy towards the IRA in Northern Ireland led to a surprisingly massive defeat by FF in 1977, where Lynch won the party’s best result with 50.6% of the vote and 84 seats. Lynch’s government became unpopular two years into its term, the results of the 1979 oil crisis. He resigned and was replaced by Charles Haughey, formerly disgraced in the Arms Crisis, who went on to become one of Ireland’s most controversial Taoiseach. Haughey initially seemed to be favouring some austerity measures, but in reality implemented high spending measures which led to the deficit ballooning out of control.

In the 1981 election, Haughey led a populist campaign supporting continued spending while FG had an attractive tax-cutting policy which gained it 22 seats for a total of 65 against FF’s 75. FF also suffered from the competition from abstentionist Anti H-Block candidates who took votes from FF. A FG-Labour coalition led by Garret FitzGerald took office and implemented severe austerity measures, but the government fell in January 1982 leading to a snap election. Haughey, despite internal divisions in FF which lasted until 1983, was able to form a government with external support. Haughey continued his economic mismanagement and runaway spending, which led to a leadership challenge to Haughey in October which he easily survived but his government later fell when FF was apparently going to implement massive cuts. A left-wing independent and the 3 Workers’ Party TDs withdrew support and led to a snap election in November 1982. FG came within five seats of FF (70 to 75) and formed government with Labour, with FitzGerald as Taoiseach.

FitzGerald liberalized society, moving Ireland to the left although it remained a largely conservative country. In Northern Ireland, he negotiated the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. But domestically, the government was unable to control the spiraling deficit and bad economic situation. FG did support public spending cuts, but Labour rejected any spending cuts. Although the government held together, its inability to control finances led to an outflow of right-wing support towards the new Progressive Democrats (PDs), a liberal party both on economic and social issues.

Haughey returned to power in 1987, with the PDs taking 12% of the vote and 14 seats, becoming the third largest party. Broadly supported by both FG and the PDs, Haughey this time implemented budget cuts, tax reform and other similar measures. Haughey called a snap election in 1987, hoping to get a majority, but instead FF lost four seats. After 27 days, Haughey finally managed to form a government with the PDs, and in doing so angered much of FF by abandoning FF’s sacred opposition to coalitions.

Haughey’s term didn’t go to well. FF suffered a major defeat in 1990, when its presidential candidate, Tánaiste Brian Lenihan Sr. was defeated in the presidential election by Labour’s Mary Robinson. Opposition within the party to Haughey strengthened and a string of corruption scandals emerged, notably the reemergence of the 80s phone tapping scandal which Haughey had authorized.

The 1992 election was FF’s lowest point, with 39% and 68 seats. FG also did poorly, while Labour won an historic 19.5%. A FF-Labour coalition around FF’s Albert Reynolds was formed. Reynold’s greatest legacy was his ability to de-escalate the conflict in Northern Ireland with the IRA announcing a cease-fire in 1994. However, Labour and FF split over a High Court nomination, leading Labour to leave the coalition. No election was held, instead a ‘Rainbow Coalition’ was formed by FG, Labour and the smaller Democratic Left. FG’s John Bruton became Taoiseach. Bruton was generally successful, except perhaps in Northern Ireland where the IRA broke its cease-fire in 1996. He liberalized divorce law and saw the beginning of the Celtic tiger economic miracle. However, perhaps because of Northern Ireland, FG narrowly lost power to Bertie Ahern’s FF in 1997. Though FG gained seats, Labour suffered badly. FF formed a coalition with the PDs.

Bertie Ahern, the teflon Taoiseach, had the ability to remain unmarred by the plethora of corruption cases. Perhaps the booming economy of the Celtic tiger (till 2008) helped, as did the 1998 Belfast Agreement. In 2002, FF was reelected while FG suffered a catastrophic meltdown, being reduced to just 31 seats. Labour did poorly, but the PDs, Greens and SF all did well. Despite a shaky second term which was marked by bad local results for FF in 2004, Ahern won a third term in office in 2007. It lost only 4 seats, for a total of 77. While FG bounced back 20 seats to get 51, Labour didn’t move. The PDs collapsed from 8 to 2 seats, with its leader losing its seat, leading to the party’s dissolution later. While the PD’s Mary Harney remained in cabinet, the government was expanded to the Green Party and supported by some independents. Ahern, faced with corruption and the beginnings of the meltdown, stepped down in 2008 in favour of Tánaiste Brian Cowen.

The Celtic tiger boom coincided with a property boom, helped by lax planning laws which allowed buildings to spring up practically everywhere and selling it at overpriced rates. Supply for property vastly surpassed demand for property, and led to the meltdown. Properties being backed by banks, Cowen was forced to guarantee the bank’s assets with public money. This, of course, led to a massive deficit where Ireland was on the verge of bankruptcy when the IMF and EU bailed it out late last year.

The Parties and the Campaigns

As explained above, both FF and FG are not parties with profound ideological roots. They’re largely similar, and they come close to representing nothing more than two broadly centrist outfits whose only use is patronage.

Fianna Fáil is traditionally more leftist and more republican/nationalist, but that’s hard to tell from its recent policies. FF is also socially conservative. Perhaps one of the reasons why Cowen and FF were so destroyed by the crisis, unlike any other governing party, is that their acceptance of IMF-EU bailout went against the party’s long-standing republican and nationalist rhetoric which at times included a dose of Euroscepticism. FF’s base is largely made up of certain working-class voters and small farmers (most of which are traditionally in western Ireland). It notably has a strong support base with the agricultural lobby groups.

FF has been in power, as we’ve seen above, for 61 of the last 79 years and most recently since 1997. That makes it the second most successful party in the democratic world after the Swedish Social Democrats. It has topped the poll in every election since 1932 and its worst result since then was a still relatively healthy 39% in 1992. A party with such a hold on power means that it is more than a bit corrupt, and perhaps one of the reasons for its success is its ability to control the sources of patronage for so long.

Questions over Cowen’s leadership arose in September 2010 after he showed up drunk to a radio interview. He survived a confidence ballot on January 16, 2011 but four days later he announced that he was stepping down as leader of Fianna Fáil but not as Taoiseach. Foreign Minister Micheál Martin, Cowen’s longtime rival, easily won a leadership contest and became leader on January 26. Martin is a capable communicator, and has managed to get strong leadership ratings. However, while he might boost FF a bit, the party has become too toxic for even he to lead it to victory.

Fine Gael is traditionally the more right-wing, liberal and less nationalist of the two. Yet, despite its right-wing reputation, it has always governed in coalition with Labour meaning that it has rarely implemented truly right-wing economic policies. FG’s close alliance with Labour is explained by its thirst for power, and given FF’s hegemony since 1932 a coalition with the third party is the only way of getting power and access to patronage. FG’s traditional base is with large farmers (in eastern Ireland) and with the urban middle-classes, where it has suffered competition from the PDs, Green and Labour.

FG’s current leader, Enda Kenny, is, to put it frankly, economically inept and a poor leader. Kenny survived a leadership challenge in 2010, a year which went particularly badly for it given that it was unable to capitalize, as the main opposition, on FF’s unpopularity. Nowadays, however, with FG mounting a tough anti-deficit campaign, Kenny has managed to make people forget that he’s probably as incompetent as Cowen and has come to embody financial stability. It has had a very good campaign.

FF and FG’s dominance has been helped by their implantation as the dominant political forces in Ireland right after the Civil War, which cast a long shadow over Irish politics. Furthermore, in rural areas, family ties and history play important roles in determining party affiliation, plus the electoral system means that politics are very local and the rural areas are pro-incumbent, making it hard for FF/FG to lose their bases there. In rural areas, voters vote heavily on local issues and as such it is hard to define any one county as a longtime FF or FG stronghold given that one party’s stronghold in 2007 might have been one of its weakest zones in the 80s. Urban areas, notably Dublin, while still voting FF/FG, also provide a base for Labour, the Greens, SF and smaller parties.

Labour has been a perennial third (or worse) party and has never won over 20% of the vote. Its weakness in Ireland is due both the aforementioned long shadow of the Civil War, FF’s populist left-wing rhetoric in its early days and also the weak implantation of industry and a urban working-class outside Dublin in Ireland. For a long time, Labour was strong with rural labourers, but its main modern base remain Dublin.

Labour’s Eamon Gilmore rode high in 2010, even surpassing all other parties in some polls until not very long ago. But the campaign has been pretty bad, and its economic policy has been under attack by both left and right. In addition, perhaps voters have shied away with electing a party which has little executive experience. Yet, anything short of an historic success (beating 1992’s 19%) would be a defeat for Labour.

Sinn Féin dropped its abstentionist policy towards the Dáil in 1986 and has stood in elections since 1987. It won one seat in 1997, 5 in 2002 and 4 in 2007. Traditionally, its Irish base has been limited to Republican areas bordering Northern Ireland and some working-class areas of Dublin. The party in Ireland received a major boost when Gerry Adams, its traditional leader and until then MP for West Belfast, decided to move his political career south, probably to leave Belfast open to Michael McGuinness. SF originally experienced a boom, out-polling FF for third place (prior to Martin taking over). Pearse Doherty easily won a seat from FF in a by-election in Donegal SW in November 2010. The party opposed the bailout and wants to default on at least some of the deficit. But the party’s economic policy has been heavily criticized and Adams himself was shown to be particularly weak on economic issues. It remains to be seen if it can perform as well as it polls, or if 2011 will be another disappointment like 2007.

The Greens won nearly 5% and 6 seats in 2007, but being in government until very recently with FF has killed them both because the government is as popular as the plague and because they were particularly incompetent in government. They’ll need to fight to retain all of their seats, and it certainly is foreseeable that they’ll lose all of them.

A bunch of small far-left groups, notably Joe Higgins’ Socialists, formed the United Left Alliance (ULA) to contest this election. Joe Higgins, who won a seat in the 2009 EU election in Dublin, is contesting his old seat, lost in 2007, in Dublin West. He’ll undoubtedly win, but it’s tough to tell if the ULA will manage more.


Here were the results of the 2007 election:

Fianna Fáil 41.56% (+0.1%) winning 77 seats (-4)
Fine Gael 27.32% (+4.8%) winning 51 seats (+20)
Labour 10.13% (-0.7%) winning 20 seats (±0)
Green Party 4.69% (+0.9%) winning 6 seats (±0)
Sinn Féin 6.94% (+0.4%) winning 4 seats (-1)
Progressive Democrats 2.73% (-1.3%) winning 2 seats (-6)
Socialist Party 0.64% (-0.2%) winning 0 seats (-1)
Independents 5.15% (-3.8%) winning 5 seats (-8)

In the 2009 European elections, FG won 29% against 24% for FF, while Labour won 14%, SF 11% and the Greens 1%.

Here are the current ranges for the parties in polls since February 20:

Fine Gael 37-40%
Labour 17-20%
Fianna Fáil 14-16%
Sinn Féin 10-12%
Greens 1-3%
Independents and others (incl. ULA) 14-19%

Seats are hard to estimate, but FG will likely fall short of a majority on these numbers. With Labour falling back, it is likely to not win more seats than FF. Labour has a very weak organization in a lot of rural areas, where it can hardly find itself good candidates and totally lacks a base. On the other hand, FF is still a party with a machine and isn’t (yet) a dead shell. However, in STV, FF could very well be toxic – it would get very few transfers. It faces wipeout in Dublin, and if transfers are awful FF could do extremely poorly. Sinn Féin will likely gain some seats, but given its tendency to overpoll, I’d be very reluctant to give them more than 8 or so.

Enda Kenny will more likely than not be the next Taoiseach, and he could do so with an overall majority of his own. That, of course, would be an even larger feat than just merely outpolling FF. Enda Kenny with a majority might not be a good news for the country’s finances, but it would be the best situation for Labour. It wouldn’t need to enter a government that will need to do some major slashing and cutting, and could establish itself as the main opposition party to FG and in doing so work to kill off FF. However, FG will probably fall short of a majority which means a coalition with Labour is most likely. While some of FG’s neoliberal minds such as Leo Varadkar might be highly critical of Labour, FG might itself like a coalition with Labour in that it would neutralize a source of potential, populist opposition to the tough economic policies which are inevitable. As for FF, the size of its defeat will determine where it goes. I’m always a bit wary of talk about earth-shattering political changes, so I’m not one to believe that FF will die after this election. After all, the PRI and LDP haven’t died after they lost the leverage of power, and FF will probably remain a strong political machine. In the case of a FG-Labour coalition, it would more likely than not be the main recipient of popular opposition to the government which will be inevitable once Kenny gets down to slashing and cutting. After all, no FG-led government has ever won reelection and I certainly have a hard time seeing how a government which will need to implement some very austere economic measures will be able to maintain high numbers. Questions of whether 2011 will be realigning or a mere deviation won’t be answered on Friday, and they probably won’t be answered in 2011.