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Parties and Elections in the Republic of Ireland
Creation of the Irish Party System
The Irish party system is coloured by the fact that the cleavages which shaped political parties in other mature European democracies. "as far as the centre-right is concerned, the origins of the Irish parties bear little or no relation to those elsewhere in western Europe." (Mair, 89) Rather than the conflicts between classes which produced the British and Scandinavian (and later the Spanish and Greek) Conservative Parties, or the conflicts over ecclesiastical authority, the Irish party system emerged as a consequence of the divisions over Civil War. Although in the early years, FF were the party of peripheral regions, of small farmers, and to an extent of the urban working class, and FG the party of prosperous Munster, of the large farmers, the Protestant minority and the urban middle-class, these divides narrowed as time went by and the two parties, most especially Fianna Fáil, became ‘catch-all’ parties. (Carty, ??) Realignment has always been hindered due to the extent of cross-party agreement in the state. A consensus in the early years on clericalism, nationalism and isolationism, passing to a consensus on welfarism, state intervention and lowered isolation later, to a consensus on the mixed economy, European integration and pluralism in later years. The great divide on many issues is not between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, but between liberal TDs in both parties, largely from the cities and industrial Leinster, and more conservative TDs from rural areas.

Labour’s development was hindered by two factors. The first, promoted by Brian Farrell, was its decision not to contest the 1918 General Election, which allowed the political contest to develop along national rather than social lines, this being the first election in which the bulk of the population had the right to vote. (Coakley and Gallagher, 91-2) The other was Fianna Fáil’s adoption of many redistributionist policies early on, which stole Labour’s thunder. (op cit., 91)

However, although the political system in the Irish Republic is substantially different to that in other democracies, that of cleavage fossilisation was substantially the same, conforming to Lipset and Rokkan’s model in which the cleavages which existed at the time at which the universal franchise was adopted persist until today. (Mair, 92)

Patterns of Competition

The early years of the state were the era of classic civil war politics. The dominant political issue was that of the constitution, and after success during the first few elections in independent Ireland, Labour and the small parties were squeezed mercilessly once Fianna Fáil entered the Dáil. On entering government Fianna Fáil gradually became less socially radical as it built up its relationship with society’s élite. It gained great kudos through its enactment of the 1937 Constitution, and Fine Gael became increasingly marginalised.

Fianna Fáil have traditionally seen themselves less a party than a national movement - only recently has it permitted itself to be called the Fianna Fáil Party. "In essence, Fianna Fáil thought of itself as a national movement dedicated to redressing the historical grievances of the Irish race, and not just another political party engaged in the struggle for office." (Carty, 101)

By the 1940s, Fianna Fáil’s move to the centre began to have negative implications, as a resurgent Labour, Clann na Poblachta and Clann na Talmhan moved grew in strength.

The 1948 election proved to be pivotal in the development of the Irish party system. Fianna Fáil’s vote dropped to its lowest level since 1927 (41.9%), Fine Gael’s to a historic low at 19.8%, while the combined vote of the four ‘broad left’ parties rose to 30.0%. However, the election proved with hindsight to be not the breaking of the mould of Irish politics, but rather its re-casting. The leftist parties chose the short term option of forming a coalition with Fine Gael to keep Fianna Fáil out, and thereby enable a dying Fine Gael to revive its fortunes. The ‘inter-party’ governments (Fianna Fáil had made the very word coalition suspect) were comparatively successful in stability terms, but by 1957 they had led back to a two-and-a-half party system. "almost throughout the post-war period, politics revolved around the opposition between Fianna Fáil, on the one hand, and all the remaining relevant parties in the system, on the other." (Mair, 94)

The 16 year long period of FF rule which followed the demise of the second inter-party government Fine Gael and Labour try and plough separate furrows from one another, and attempt to win single party government. Both were doomed to failure, as Fianna Fáil won 4 elections in a row. The period saw a change in the left-right positions of the two big parties. "Fine Gael moved to the left, abandoning many of the liberal, free-market policies, which had characterised the party during the coalition period of the 1950s, and emphasising the need for social justice and redistribution, and what it called ‘the Just Society’." (Mair, 97) In contrast, Seán Lemass’ policy was geared towards creating growth. He proclaimed that "a rising time lifts all boats", (loc. cit.) rather ironically given his espousal of social radicalism as a young Turk in the ‘20s. This paved the ways for the interventionist Labour-FG coalitions of the 1970s and ‘80s. Fianna Fáil returned to much of its earlier corporatist rhetoric of ‘social solidarity’, except now it was with reference not to the border but the demand for social stability.

The period from 1967 until 1981 represents the purest period of two-and-a-half party politics. As this period saw the development of comparative European political science, it is not surprising that the slightly inaccurate 2½ party characterisation has dominated analyses of Ireland. Dear me, I’m a cheeky wee gat, ampt I?

Fianna Fáil always had a significant positional advantage in this set-up. "Fianna Fáil’s choices were those between government and coalition, the choices for Fine Gael and Labour were between coalition and opposition…neither could afford to go its own way" (Mair, 95)

1981 saw the system again beginning to disintegrate with the emergence of the Workers’ Party. The WP exerted a leftward pressure on Labour at just the point when Fine Gael’s supporters were moving to the right under pressure of the recession. (Coakley and Gallagher, 98) The emergence of the PDs in 1985 further fragmented the system, as did the rather lower key emergence of the Green Party in 1989. Both FF and FG saw their vote fall precipitously during the ‘80s and early ‘90s. In 1989, with no obvious coalition available to take power, Charles Haughey decided to break FF’s golden rule and enter a coalition with the PDs.

Mair (quoted by Sinnott, 73) saw the parties as on a simple left right spectrum during the 1989 elections, with the Workers’ Party at one extreme and the PDs at the other extreme. Interestingly it also put Fine Gael in the centre, and Fianna Fáil some what to the right of centre. Much of this work, much of it carried out by Mair and Laver, is self contradictory, particularly when different studies are compared. This only goes to show the difficulties in pinning down a socio-economic space to the ‘big two’.

The 1992 elections seemed finally to have broken the mould of Irish politics. Fine Gael sank to their lowest vote since 1948, Fianna Fáil to their lowest since 1927, and Labour rose to its highest since 1922. After the elections a number of coalition deals were discussed, finally resulting in a Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition, a result which no-one would have expected previous to the election. However, the fallout of the Harry Whelehan affair resulted in the emergence of the Rainbow Coalition, which if it demonstrated anything, it demonstrated the ideological vacuuousness of the two big parties.

1997 seemed to see the mould shattered, although Fine Gael made some recovery, and better vote management helped Fianna Fáil gain seats if not votes. More importantly both major parties announced their desired coalition partners in advance of the election This raised the question as to which was more important in the Republic’s party system: the big two, who seemed to have no ideological ballast, or the smaller parties who could exert a considerable pull on the major parties who were in need of their votes?

Since 1997, the situation has changed further. Democratic Left have amalgamated with Labour. The PDs barely survived the 1997 General Election, and after truly catastrophic by-election performances, and the imminent retirement of half of their parliamentary party, who have big personal votes, the future for them seems in doubt. Does this, however, mark a return to the 2½ party system? This is uncertain. 1997 saw a huge number of Independents and fringe parties elected: Sinn Féin, the Socialist Party, the Greens, Independent Fianna Fáil, even the TV deflector candidate. Fragmentation is still a major political factor. The back to the future scenario is far from secure.

Has openness to coalitions been a good thing for Fianna Fáil? Some would argue that its abandonment of its self-declared special place in the party system has cost it significant support. On the other hand, the fact that it has been able to retain power despite its two lowest shares of the vote since 1920 demonstrates the advantages coalition holds for it. "as the biggest single party, and as the party which was perhaps closest to the centre of the political spectrum, it would probably always seem easier for Fianna Fáil to find a coalition partner than would be the case for most of the other parties." (Mair, 100)

Mair notes three big watersheds: 1927, 1948 and 1989. I agree with them, and I am inclined to think the next general election will be a crucial one as well. However, perhaps the most crucial watershed was 1989, before then Fianna Fáil had been in government for all but 15 of the preceding 57 years. Since then it has never been in a position to do so.

While some commentators claim that there is no difference between the two major parties - for example Carty (85) claims that "In no other European country does a small number of programmatically indistinguishable parties, each commanding heterogeneous electoral support constitute the entire party system." Sinnott (68) however counters that the differences between them can be seen on other issues - Fianna Fáil is distinctly more conservative than Fine Gael on ‘moral’ issues, and substantially more nationalistic on Northern Ireland. However, there is an increasing consensus on both issues - FF accepted much of the liberal agenda after the 1992 deal with Labour, and the Good Friday Agreement has lessened controversy over Northern Ireland policy.

Party Organisation

In practically all parties the organisation is structured on three levels - the local branch (cumann in Fianna Fáil) is the most basic level of organisation, usually covering a housing estate or village. Irish local branches, particularly those of FF, tend to be much smaller and more localised than those in most countries, and also have much greater autonomy. Fianna Fáil, in particular, have an extensive network of branches, which is a key organisational strategy dating back to the 1920s. (Sinnott, 30) In larger parties (Laver and Marsh, 105) there is an intermediate tier covering LEAs for council elections. Above this there is the constituency council, which unlike in Great Britain is not the basic unit to which members belong, but is made up of delegates from the local branches. These usually cover one Dáil constituency. In theory the national conference is the supreme policy making body. However, as in most other democracies, these have become more a chance to rally the troops and present one’s best face to the outside world. (Laver and Marsh, 106) In practice the day to day issues of management are dealt with by the national executive. These various levels are supported by the full time staff in party headquarters, however both due to the small size of the Republic and the localisation of politics in comparison to most democracies, these tend to be small, and in the case of smaller parties, may not even have full-time staff.

A major function of the party organisations is to raise the money to keep a political party running effectively in the modern era. In 1992, Fianna Fáil spent £1million on its party machine. (Laver and Marsh, 107) Parties have historically been heavily dependent on big corporate sponsors. Since the early 1990s, the constant focus of the media on political corruption has brought about an increased reluctance on the part of corporate donors to give money, and an increased caution on accepting them from political parties - particularly in the light of 1993 revelations that some corporate donors gave money to several political parties simultaneously. (Laver and Marsh, 108)

Party membership is, as in most countries, in gradual decline. 1992 figures show a total of 120,00 people in the Republic are party members, around 6% of the electorate. Fianna Fáil’s network of members is particularly dense, with 1 member for every 9 voters, it approaches the European average. The smaller parties, notably the Greens, are a long way behind. (Laver and Marsh, 110)

The primary bonus, in Ireland, of being a party member is the right to influence candidate selections. In most parties this is done through a convention system, although the proportion of members who are delegates to selection conventions is high. The primary criterion for selection seems to be ability to pull in the vote, rather than political or social balance reasons. Conventions have considerable autonomy, however the centre usually retains the right either of approval of candidates before their selection, or veto afterward, and also to nominate extra candidates to be added to the ticket in a particular constituency. (Laver and Marsh, 112) Beyond this, the real rôle of the grass-roots member is limited. Policy decisions are made at the central level, while the leader is elected by the parliamentary party. The exception is Labour, which gives its members a much broader say in the direction of the Party. (Laver and Marsh, 114)

Fianna Fáil have traditionally seen themselves less a party than a national movement - only recently has it permitted itself to be called the Fianna Fáil Party. "In essence, Fianna Fáil thought of itself as a national movement dedicated to redressing the historical grievances of the Irish race, and not just another political party engaged in the struggle for office." (Carty, 101)

Voting Behaviour

As stated above, the Irish political system did not divide along the same lines as other European systems. Therefore, traditional cleavages are less important than in other European societies. However, while they may not be as strong as in other countries, class, religion, age, gender and geographical location do still play a part in shaping how voters decide. The tradition of civil war politics means that Irish politics has traditionally been a better advertisement for the socialisation model of voting than the rational choice model. However traditional loyalties have broken down substantially in recent decades. Laver and Marsh cite (116) Dick Walsh, talking about the way in which party activists could pick out the allegiance of every household in the ‘60s, but "nowadays they couldn’t even be sure that everyone went to mass." (Laver and Marsh, 116) They also cite European Commission polling data which shows the numbers feeling an attachment to particular political party have declined substantially since the 1970s. (Laver and Marsh, 118)

Although Laver and Marsh claim that "knowing whether a voter has a manual or non-manual occupation does not help us much in predicting how he or she is likely to vote." (Laver and Marsh, 120), I would argue that Fine Gael shows a clear preponderance of farmers, and a dearth of urban working-class voters. The merger of Labour with Democratic Left, and the receding of the 1992 ‘Spring tide’, may well result in Labour’s social base reverting to its earlier working-class bias. All parties have been, in historical terms, cross-cleavage alliances in comparison with many other democracies - "[Poll data] reveal[s] very clearly both the socially heterogeneous of the party support and the lack of any sharp partisan dimension to the social divisions in Irish society." (Carty, 71) While this may have been unusual in the ‘classical era’ of western European democracy, it is less so in today’s Europe of declining party loyalties and social cleavages which are declining in electoral importance. However, writing in the 1970’s, Carty (72-3) noted the unique cross class and location appeal of Fianna Fáil, and cited it as a reason for their success - "The social profile of the dominant party comes close to being a mirror image of the electorate as a whole, which undoubtedly helps to account for Fianna Fáil’s remarkable ability to maintain its electoral dominance." (Carty, 72-3)

Despite increasing fluctuations of Fianna Fáil’s support, Sinnott in the end largely concurs with Carty’s analysis due to the trendlessness of the fluctuations - "What all this suggests is that voting responds in particular times to particular issues, not that the system is undergoing a politicisation of class conflict." (Sinnott, 291)

Sinnott (186) uses 1992 opinion poll data and a revised class structure to throw new light on the picture. Fianna Fáil is shown to have concentrations of support among the petite bourgeoisie, long-term unemployed and working class, and substantially lower support among the salariat and bourgeoisie. It was also weak among the short-term unemployed, most of whom would of course have lost their jobs during the previous FF led administration.

Confessionalism is also an increasingly important issue in Irish politics. Eurobarometer data (cited by Sinnott, 194) is useful here. While the number of non-church goers is small in Ireland, they historically have showed a definite bias for Labour. This was substantially eliminated during the period of Workers’ Party strength, only to return again, albeit in a less pronounced fashion since 1991. The change in extent may be due to the growth and ‘normalisation’ of secularism in Ireland during the 1980s. Fianna Fáil have a definite advantage among churchgoers, while Fine Gael and the PDs both appear to have little variation in their support between churchgoers and non-churchgoers.

Carty, drawing on longitudinal survey work by Stein Larsen et al in the late ‘60s, noted the stability of Irish party preferences, higher than average, but still far from exceptional. (Carty, 65-6) However, if anecdotal evidence is correct, that stability has waned as much in Ireland as in other democracies of late

However, the socialisation theory is reinforced by poll evidence that in 1992 only 20% of voters claimed that the parties’ policies were the most important factor in deciding who they would vote for. (Laver and Marsh, 117) 1969 data cited by Carty shows that well over half the electorate saw no significant difference between the parties. (Carty, 80) During the period of volatility, much of the support change can be accounted to personal rather than policy factors; e.g. the FitzGerald vs. Haughey TV debates. I would, however, point to British evidence that voters decide on valence or competence criteria, rather than on issues - i.e. voters decide on the basis of perceived competence in handling the economy and past record, rather than on actual policies.

Sinnott (283) agrees with the classic Lipset and Rokkan proposition that party systems are ‘frozen’ along the cleavages which existed at the time of the first election which had mass suffrage - in this case 1918. However, he feels that this cleavage was one of centre-periphery relation, with London being the centre and all of Ireland being on the periphery. The civil war crystallised the party system into a moderate peripheralists (Fine Gael) and staunch peripheralists (Fianna Fáil). This explains why the more peripheral regions recorded FF’s strongest support, while Fine Gael’s geographical support has been fairly amorphous across Ireland.

Writing after the 1992 General Election, Brendan O’Leary identified three cleavages in Irish electoral politics. The first between Keynsians and neo-liberals; a cleavage between Catholics fundamentalists and the rest; and finally a cleavage on Northern Ireland. (West European Politics, 13:3, 410) This was possibly based on work carried out by Richard Sinnott. Although O’Leary concluded that a Labour-FF coalition was reasonable given the support bases of the two parties, I would counter that Labour transfers in 1992 showed a definite preference for Fine Gael.

Sinnott (166), suggests that 1987 was the election in which volatility truly arrived in Ireland, with the proportion of those voting for a different party from previously reaching an all time low. While this may have been caused by the arrival of the PDs on the political scene, he notes a 20-25% drop of those feeling close to any political party between 1980 and 1986.

Much of the academic debate of Irish politics is on the issue of whether it is accurate to characterise it as a party system at all, given the importance of brokerage in the system. Despite much popular belief most personal voting takes place within the confines of party allegiance. Carty, studying elections between 1945 and 1977, notes that all parties achieved a level of transfer coherence of over two-thirds, with a clear relationship between party size and ability to retain transfers. (Carty, 68) This relationship has remained, although absolute party loyalty appears to have declined somewhat in recent years, agreeing with other evidence of party system fragmentation in the ‘80s and ‘90s. However it should be noted that Fianna Fáil gained 10 seats on an identical share of the vote between 1992 and 1997, partially because of better candidate strategy and vote management, but also because of a lowered rate of leakage.

The degree of personalisation of Irish politics have led some to call for a move to some sort of list PR system, which, they claim, would encourage politicians to focus more on their rôle as legislators rather than as brokers. However, Carty notes (23) that party-machine and brokerage politics exists in polities with widely different electoral systems. For example political machines have been common in the USA under plurality and in Italy under list PR. The clientelist nature of Irish politics is dependent on the small ratio of population to representative, historical and cultural factors (for example some have likened the rôle of TDs in the Irish political system to that of priests in the Roman Catholic Church), and the lack of internal mobility of the Irish population (hence the importance of politicians’ local connections). All these factors are under threat - Church allegiance is declining, the population is growing, more likely to move regularly during their lives, and more likely to live in vast urban estates, or in ‘bedsit’ land with a much weaker sense of community. So far the effect of these trends seems to have been a weakening of the party system, and a drastic reduction in participation, notably in urban areas - working-class estates in Dublin now struggle to reach 60% turnout in Dáil elections. Of course, these trends are not unique to the Republic, but many of the are occurring at a much greater pace there.

One often ignored facet of Irish voting behaviour is referendum voting. Here cleavages are much more visible than in party voting - the proportion of farmers and the proportion of working-class voters is directly related to the level of conservative voting in referenda. Sinnott, noting the ‘three groups’ - conservatives, pragmatists, liberals - in the 1992 abortion referenda, and extrapolates that rather than Robinson’s victory in 1990 representing a liberal breakthrough, he 1st preference share was virtually identical to the ‘Yes’ vote in the 1986 divorce referendum, and she was defeated by transfers coming from the Fine Gael hard-core who voted for Currie. (Sinnott, 292) However, the ‘Yes’ vote in the 1995 divorce referendum may well contradict this, although the sharp rural-urban divide remained, somewhat ameliorated by a softened class cleavage in urban areas. At sub constituency level, tallymen were reporting substantial differences between, e.g. Galway City and Connemara in Galway West, or Dundalk and Drogheda and the rest of Louth.

The Effect of Changes in Society

In most European countries were the Roman Catholic population exceeds about 30% (i.e. from the Netherlands on), one of the principal factors in shaping the party system was a cleavage between those who wished to promote the values of the Roman Church in society and secularists, liberal Catholics and Protestants on the other hand. (Mair, 88) Historically in Ireland, the Catholic population has been too devotional and the Protestant minority too small for this to develop; Catholic values were an unquestioned and unquestionable part of the political scene.

Since the late 1960s, and more especially since the scandals of the early 1990s, this has radically changed. Internationalisation, urbanisation and secularisation have eroded the authority of the Roman Church, and mass attendances have fallen precipitously, although they are still higher than in the rest of Europe - even higher than in Northern Ireland. At the same time within those who remain Christians there has been an increasing challenge to Church authority. Conversions to the Church of Ireland are increasingly common, particularly among the urban middle-classes. Possibly aided by increased contact with France, Germany and the Benelux countries, the ‘ethical Catholic’ tradition has become more prominent, both among clergy and laity. Mary McAleese’s election exemplifies this - not so long ago it would have been unthinkable for someone who had publicly attacked the Church on its homosexuality and divorce teachings, and who had described the Pope as ‘having woodworm’, to have been elected Irish President. Moreover McAleese, in contrast to Robinson, was not a secularist but a prominent Roman Catholic layperson, who had been a spokesperson of the Irish Bishops’ Conference. Prominent clergy such as Fr. Colm Kilcoyne and Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy openly campaigned for a ‘Yes’ vote in the 1995 divorce referendum.

Many of the major political themes of the past two decades in Irish politics have been about a clerical vs. liberal/secularist struggle. However, the party system has not re-aligned itself with this. The ‘new’ parties, and to a lesser extent Labour, have all been staunchly in favour of reform, while the ‘big two’ have been split, largely along urban-rural lines.

The Cyclical Nature of the Irish Party System

Much of the talk of realignment of the years of the turn of the decade as the two-and-a-half party system seems about to reassert itself.. Fragmentation has occurred in the past in Irish politics, most notably in the early years of the state, and then again with the emergence of Clann na Poblachta and Clann na Talmhan in the ‘40s and ‘50s.

So will the minor parties of the ‘80s survive? The Progressive Democrats’ electoral fortunes have followed a similar pattern to those of Clann na Talmhan and Clann na Poblachta. After an initial burst of success, the Party’s share of the vote and level of contestation has consistently decreased (it gained seats, but lost share of the vote, in 1992), culminating in its inability to fight even one Euro constituency in 1999.

More enigmatic was the case of the Workers’ Party. The Party was the only Marxist political party in Western Europe to exhibit electoral growth during the 1980s (Mitchell, West European Politics, 13), growing both slowly and consistently. However its explosion in 1991, followed by its merger with Labour in 1999 has seemingly wiped it off the political map. Whether it would have survived the strains of the collapse of Soviet Communism which damaged every other European Marxist party (though notably not the Japanese) is an open question. However, the growth of Greens, Sinn Féin and the Socialist Party suggests that there remains space on the extreme left in Dublin, and possibly in Cork, Limerick and Waterford as well.


Fianna Fáil’s decision to enter a coalition with the Progressive Democrats in 1989 changed the whole nature of government formation in the Republic. As John Bowman (cited by Sinnott, 40) put it at the time, "Fianna Fáil is now just another party, hoping to govern alone, but willing to bargain should their be a post-election impasse." The rule of the game had changed. No longer was FF a ‘national movement’, apart from the other parties, and no longer was an election inevitably ‘Fianna Fáil versus the rest’. Any hope in Fianna Fáil circles of this being a ‘temporary little arrangement were rudely dispelled by the 1992 election results, which showed FF votes dropping to a historic low - below 40% for the first time since 1927.

The lack of ideological roots of the two big parties increases pragmatism and ‘minimum deputy theory’. For example Fine Gael ruled out a coalition with DL in 1992, attempted to build an ‘everybody against Fianna Fáil coalition after the Whelehan affair, but was happy enough to settle for a centre-left coalition in the end.

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