Ireland 2011: an Epic Fáil

A general election was held in Ireland on February 25, 2011. All 166 members of the lower house of the Oireachtas, the Dáil Éireann, were up for reelection. Held in the wake of one of Ireland’s most dramatic economic collapses after a long stretch of growth, it was obviously going to be an historic election and it was one. For those not familiar with the bizarre world of Irish politics, I’ve explained the parties and their roots in a preview post.

Fine Gael 36.10% (+8.78%) winning 76 seats (+25)
Labour 19.45% (+9.32%) winning 37 seats (+17)
Fianna Fáil 17.45% (-24.11%) winning 20 seats (-57)*
Sinn Féin 9.94% (+3%) winning 14 seats (+10)
Green Party 1.85% (-2.84%) winning 0 seats (-6)
Socialist Party 1.21% (+0.57%) winning 2 seats (+2)
People Before Profit 0.97% (+0.52%) winning 2 seats (+2)
Independents and Others 13.04% (+7.73%) winning 15 seats (+10)*

* includes Séamus Kirk (FF), Ceann Comhairle (speaker), automatically returned in Louth
* includes Séamus Healy, a ULA candidate and other votes cast for certain ULA candidates; and parties such as South Kerry Independent Alliance, Christian Solidarity or Workers’ Party. My estimate places the remaining 14 real independents at 6 left, 3 ex-FF, 3 right, 1 ex-FG and 1 maverick.

Results for all 166/166 seats pending a recount in Galway West between Seán Kyne (FG) and Catherine Connolly (I, ex-Labour). Kyne had a 17 vote edge over Connolly on count 13.

Note on the map: independents counted separately and individually
First, getting the records of this historic out of the way, though needless to say they’re very symbolic factoids. This is the first time since 1932 that Fianna Fáil will not be the largest party in the Dáil and it is also FF’s worst showing both seat-wise and vote-wise since its foundation in 1926. This is not, however, Fine Gael’s best showing – it did better in 1981 and 1982, but it will probably be its best showing seat wise and obviously it has the symbolic victory of being the largest party for the first time in its history. Labour did slightly worse vote-wise this year than in 2011, but 35 seats is the party’s highest seat count in its history. This is also Sinn Féin’s best result in the Republic of Ireland since the 1926 split from which FF was born. Turnout was 70.1%, which is up 3% on 2007 and which is the highest since at least 1992 (where my data stops).

The results of Friday were an unambiguous thumping for FF. Needless to say, it’s quite obvious that it was punished heavily for its economic incompetence during the crisis and the unpopular IMF-EU bailout. FF’s 17.5% is in the top range of its poll results and even slightly over, which shouldn’t be surprising given that unpopular governments tend to underpoll (UK 1992 being the best case of this). However, even a “decent” (for the times) vote share hasn’t translated into many seats. As predicted, FF candidates were “toxic” and got roughly 7-10% of transfers from other candidates only. Transfers from the Greens were probably poor, terrible from the other parties and the vote management between FF candidates in constituencies wasn’t what it was in the good years. Poor transfers have certainly hurt it a lot in a number of constituencies. While current FF leader Micheál Martin managed to top the count with 16.7% in Cork South-Central, the party’s defeat has scalped several high-ranking members including all but two ministers and two junior ministers. The two most notable are Mary Hanfin (Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Innovation) who lost in Dún Laoghaire and took only 9% of first preferences; and most importantly the Tánaiste, Mary Coughlan who lost in Donegal South West taking 11.5% of first preferences. Not an actual cabinet member but certainly a dynastic name, Seán Haughey lost his seat in Dublin North Central which means that there will be no Haughey in the Dáil since 1957. Éamon Ó Cuív, Éamon de Valera’s grandson, however, was reelected in Galway West without too much trouble. A number of constituencies will be left with no FF TD, when FF has had at least one TD in each constituency since 1932. The Tánaiste’s defeat in Donegal SW, for example, leaves FF without a TD in an area where FF has had TDs since its foundation or so.

In Dublin proper, FF now holds only one of the 47 seats in the city with Brian Lenihan, the outgoing Finance Minister, who managed to save his seat in Dublin West. His brother Conor (Dublin SW), however, was not so lucky and got creamed badly. Cyprian Brady, Bertie Ahern’s running-mate in 2007 (in Dublin Central) and who ran for reelection as TD this year, closely supported by Ahern, got the worst result for a FF TD with only 4.7% in his seat. In the areas directly bordering Dublin and considered as part of the broad suburbia (Kildare, Meath, Wicklow) there will be only one FF TD, Seán Ó Fearghaíl in Kildare South (which includes rural areas where Ó Fearghaíl is from, so arguably the suburbia has no FF TD anymore). FF took a big beating in the working-class areas of west and north Dublin where it was strong, way back when. The suburbs of Dublin grew dramatically during the Celtic Tiger years as middle-class families moved out of the city and bought houses on credit. Nowadays, these families have been the hardest hit by the economic crisis and have punished FF by giving it its worst results in the country. It resisted better in rural areas, but still got trounced. FF’s best result was 28.1% in Carlow-Kilkenny.

FF had sought to adopt first-past-the-post twice in 1959 and 1968. In those days, it was to guarantee FF a permanent majority. Perhaps FF is now thanking the heavens that it failed or else this election would have been a true wipeout for FF, which would likely have gotten at most 5 seats and perhaps only Martin in Cork and one or two outside that. In this case, this election would have been similar to Canada 1993 (the PCs won 16%, slightly less than FF, but got 0.7% of seats instead of FF’s 12% this year).

FF’s demise brought their former fledgling partners, the Greens, down with them. The Greens became a joke party, winning 1.9% of the vote and losing all 6 seats rather easily. Its former leader, Trevor Sargent managed 8.5% in Dublin North (-8.2% on 2007) while current leader John Gormley got 6.8% in Dublin South East. Its most outspoken member, Paul Gogarty got wiped out taking 3.5% in Dublin Mid West.

credit where it’s due: this isn’t my map

On the side of the winners, Fine Gael is probably the one which has gained the most coming out of this. Despite its leader, Enda Kenny, having poor leadership numbers and being almost constantly criticized within his own party (most recently in summer 2010), FG managed some impressive gains on the back of good transfers but also very good vote management in its constituencies. It did quite well in rural areas, where it took a lot of FF votes and also in the most ‘affluent’ (a relative term nowadays) of the Dublin suburbia in Meath or whereabouts. Its best result overall was 65% in Mayo, where a lovefest for Enda Kenny in his home turf (since 1975) is to blame. Kenny got in on the first count with 23.6% of first prefs and brought in three other Fine Gael-ers to give FG 4 out of 5 seats in the constituency. Definitely an impressive feat and the most extreme example of FG’s competent vote management on Friday. It will probably, however, kill itself for giving away freebies like in Kildare South where Michael Heydon’s 33% as FG’s sole candidate could have given it a second seat without too much trouble. Heydon’s 33% was the best result for a candidate in all of Ireland. However, FG did not win enough seats to form a majority government, meaning that it will need to govern in coalition – a point I’ll come back to later.

Labour were the second biggest winners and also became the second party in the Dáil for the first time ever. It will have its largest caucus ever, with 37 seats. It did best in Dublin, where it is the largest party. Its results were particularly strong in the working-class constituencies of Dublin (where it’s been strong since the 90s or so) were strong, the most impressive of which was in Dublin North West with 43.2% overall it got 2/3 seats with the final seat going to Sinn Féin, meaning that Dublin NW is the only one with no FG TD and is the only constituency entirely dominated by the left (probably the first time in Irish history). Labour won 6 constituencies in Dublin, most roughly in the west of the city which includes the most working-class or low income areas. FG did best in the more middle-class areas, though Labour seemingly has a ‘bobo’ type vote in places such as Dún Laoghaire (which is Gilmore’s constituency). Labour, however, has been strong or strongest in Dublin only since the 1990s or so, when it integrated the Democratic Left (the moderate wing of the Workers’ Party, the Official Sinn Féin). Current leader Eamon Gilmore is a former DL TD himself. Prior to that, Labour had traditionally been strongest in southern Ireland and weaker in northern Ireland. Its base in southern Ireland was with unionized agrolabour, and traditions don’t die in Irish politics. There are also working-class areas such as Cork or Cobh which provide a strong vote for Labour. It has since grown in Dublin’s suburbs, where it did well this year while the oddity in Longford-Westmeath seems to be a mix of Dublin suburban growth, manufacturing base and a personal vote in Westmeath for Willie Penrose, a Labour TD since 1992. Despite gains nationally, it did poorly in most of Connaught and northern Leinster though it did win a seat in Galway West, which is a very good thing for them. A lack of organization and by consequence a lack of decent candidate pool hurts them a lot. But set against the 2009 locals and Euros, Labour’s vote held up remarkably well (in 2009, it won roughly 14-15% when polls placed it at 18-23%).

Sinn Féin finally made the breakthrough it wanted in 2007. While it slightly over-polled – again – good transfers from other parties have given its candidate a significant boost as they won 14 seats and have made gains in areas outside their border country base around Northern Ireland. Its new base seems to be not only in the border counties of Donegal, Louth and Cavan-Monaghan where it has been strongest recently but also in the working-class areas of Dublin (in stark contrast to even middle-class liberal areas, where it is very weak) and now in old nationalist areas in Munster such as Cork or Kerry (though SF has been present in Kerry North for a good time now with Martin Ferris, and, soon, his good-looking daughter). Gerry Adams himself won in Louth, topping the poll with 21.7%. Pearse Doherty, SF’s popular finance spokesperson since his by-election win in Donegal South West last year, won 33% of first preferences (as the only SF candidate) and in doing so allowed SF to be the largest party in the constituency. Doherty’s high vote makes it likely that SF could likely have gotten a second seat here if it had run a second candidate.

The United Left Alliance (ULA) isn’t a registered party and as such didn’t appear on ballots. Therefore, its candidates are still counted for their respective parties (Socialist or People Before Profit) or as independents so it’s hard to quickly give the whole ULA a vote share. It has five seats, 2 Socialists, 2 PBP and one independent (technically, Workers and Unemployed Action Group). Joe Higgins, the Socialist Party’s leader and incumbent MEP (TD until 2007) won rather easily in Dublin West with 19% on first prefs. Clare Daly (SP) won in Dublin North (which includes the airport, where the radical left is strong) with 15.2% on first prefs. Joan Collins of People Before Profit (formerly SP herself) won with 12.9% in Dublin South Central. Finally, Richard Boyd Barrett, the bourgeois Trot of PBP won narrowly in Dún Laoghaire where he took 10.9%. Seeing Dún Laoghaire the middle-class suburb electing a Trot is always amusing. Séamus Healy of the WUAG (counted here and elsewhere as independent) won in Tipperary South toping the poll with an impressive 21.3%.

The number of Independents has increased considerably for the 31st Dáil. There are 14 outright independents (not counting Séamus Healy) in the new Dáil. Of those, six (O’Sullivan, McGrath, Murphy, Halligan, Pringle and Wallace) are left-wingers. O’Sullivan was elected in a 2009 by-election in Dublin Central as the ‘heir’ to long-time left-wing independent TD Tony Gregory. Finian McGrath (Dublin North Central) is also associated to the late Tony Gregory. Catherine Murphy (Kildare North) is a former member of outfits such as the Workers’ Party, DL and Labour. John Halligan (Waterford) is undoubtedly left-wing, he’s a former member of the Workers’ Party which is strong in Waterford (a working-class town). Thomas Pringle (Donegal SW) is a local councillor elected as a republican socialist and a former member of Sinn Féin. Finally, Mick Wallace (Wexford) is a building contractor/property developer who runs the local soccer team and is known for opposition to the Iraq War.

Three are FF defectors or people who were FF once upon a time: Mattie McGrath (Tipp South), Tom Fleming (Kerry South) and Michael Healy-Rae (Kerry South). McGrath was elected as a FF TD in 2007 but was a thorn in the party’s side before finally leaving FF earlier this year. Fleming ran as an independent after FF didn’t select him. As for Michael Healy-Rae, he’s the son of well-known local fixture Jackie Healy-Rae (a TD since 1997) and is a rural populist type with a distinctive redneck/Ireland in the 1800s feel. There is one FG-independent (though he supported the government): Michael Lowry in Tipp North. He’s a former FG cabinet member who was forced out of the party for shady stuff and is seemingly a pork-barrel spender type of TD.

There are three right-wingers: Senator Shane Ross, easily elected in Dublin South, is a right-wing populist maverick type. A former FG member, he’s a stockbroker and campaigner on shareholder issues. His opposition to the bailout makes him a populist more than a classical liberal. In Wicklow, there is Stephen Donnelly, a former management consultant who campaigned on vague economic issues. Finally, there is Noel Grealish, a former PD TD reelected as an independent in Galway West.

Finally, there’s Luke Flanagan in Roscommon-South Leitrim. Flanagan is a prominent cannabis legalization activist, though nowadays focused on local issues as a county councillor in Roscommon. He seems to be a left-wing populist type.

Taoiseach Enda

Now comes the future. Enda Kenny will certainly become Taoiseach. He can thank his God for the economic crisis, because it’s quite unlikely an uncharismatic and incompetent leader of his type would have come close to power in normal times. His speech last night was one of the most boring and cliche speeches in politics, which means that Enda Kenny is a cure for insomnia. Yet, he’s won. FG doesn’t have enough to form a majority government and the independents don’t seem to be of the type to support a right-wing agenda which FG will allegedly implement. Furthermore, having a government reliant on independents never works especially in Ireland when a good number of those are rural pork-barrel spenders. Another solution is an FG minority supported by FF, without FF’s participation. Micheál Martin might be open to something like that, though it’s still hard to see the two parties working together (even out of a coalition) because, after all, Éamon de Valera didn’t sign the treaty in 1921. Yet a FG-FF type setup with an FG minority cabinet would probably be best for Labour’s long-term future as it could keep FF tied down while not hurting Labour. A FG-FF setup would be more likely to introduce the most stringent and austere of economic policies because it would be a quasi-uniformly right-wing government. As such, that option might please people such as Leo Varadkar, a right-wing FG TD. The most likely outcome, according to the pundits, seems to be a FG-Labour government. Éamon Gilmore has said that Labour is open to talks. Such a government might find its most right-wing policies frustrated by Labour’s presence and would implement a somewhat less austere policy. But it would still be a centre-right policy which would be taken (largely similar to FF’s recent policies during the crisis) and as such Labour would undoubtedly suffer a lot, maybe more than FG, from such a government which would inevitably become unpopular very quickly (especially given that Enda Kenny doesn’t seem a competent leader). SF could only be rubbing its hands in such a scenario which would assure it a bright future, and it would also allow FF to slowly rebuild independently in the opposition. Labour’s strategists ought to think about the long-term consequences on Labour and Irish politics as it enters or not government.

As said in the preview, we won’t know for a long time if 2011 was a realignment or a deviation. As such, I wouldn’t be quick to jump to conclusions about this being a historic election signaling the end of Civil War politics in Ireland and a realignment on ‘normal’ left-right lines. FF is certainly very seriously crippled, but Martin has some credibility left to rebuild the party and a FG-Labour government would probably make rebuilding much easier. FF is still a serious player, with members and organizations on the ground which can either break down further or be oiled up to run again in the future. However, FF’s future chances would be seriously compromised if Labour isn’t in government. In that case, Labour would grow in opposition and would seriously threaten FF’s chances and would enhance transition from Civil War politics towards left-right politics. From my point of view, moving Ireland towards left-right politics rather than archaic Civil War politics would be a welcome thing.

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Posted on March 1, 2011, in Ireland. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Clarification: Labour´s power in Dublin developed first in the 1960s – or specifically after the 1969 election when the party for the first time campaigned on an obvious left-wing platform (“The Seventies will be Socialist” was the campaign platform). They were defeated badly and ridiculously outside the capital, but made urban gains and have been seen as something of a “Dublin” and “Liberal Intellectual” party ever since.

    Not all of Dun Laoghaire is middle class, the south end of the consistuency is most certainly not. And it is here where Gilmore gets most of his vote. The North end and the region by the coast on the other hand…

    As for Ming Flanagan, I wouldn´t classify him. But he is more the sort of slightly eccentric nonconformist politician with views that could be considered ´leftish´ (I imagine he is the first TD from Roscommon to quote Rage Against The Machine while giving a speech) who could only be elected in a rural very conservative constituency.

  2. Very interesting as usual.

  3. For me the most devastating statistic (for which I have Felim McMahon to thank) is that FF have won at least one seat in every single constituency in every election since 1924. This time round they are totally unrepresented in 26 of the 33 seats.

  4. Since 1932, actually. FF was founded in 1926 and has won at least 1 seat in each constituency since 1932.

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