IT WAS an election of so much change, and yet so little. It’s easier to begin with the change. The two government parties, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party, were annihilated. The Greens lost all of their six seats in the Dáil (the lower house of Ireland’s parliament), while Fianna Fáil won just 16 per cent of the vote and only twenty seats, down from seventy-seven at the last election in 2007. Thirteen of its ministers lost their seats. Brian Lenihan, the finance minister, is now the party’s only TD (member of parliament) in the capital, Dublin. This was a disastrous result for Fianna Fáil, Ireland’s dominant political party, which has been in power for almost sixty of the past eighty years. During that period its vote fell below 40 per cent on only two occasions, while its lowest seat total was sixty-five. At every previous election Fianna Fáil always had at least one representative in every one of the forty-three multi-member constituencies. It now lacks representation in twenty-five.
The Greens suffered for entering into what one of its departing TDs described as a Faustian pact with Fianna Fáil in 2007. Despite the seeds of the economic crisis having been sown long before, and despite the fact that it was the Greens who triggered the election by resigning from government, the public deemed them as culpable as Fianna Fáil for the savage cuts the country has had to endure. This is not unusual for minor coalition parties that lack the support base to withstand the hostility of the electorate in difficult times. It remains to be seen whether the Greens will follow the path of the Progressive Democrats, the other minor party that supported Fianna Fáil in 2007 and imploded less than two years later.
Everyone in the opposition profited from Fianna Fáil’s demise. Its chief governing rival, Fine Gael, a fellow centre-right party, won seventy-six seats, beating its previous record of seventy. Although its vote share of 36 per cent did not beat a previous high of 39 per cent, set in 1982, assiduous vote management ensured the party received a considerable seat bonus, giving it 46 per cent of seats. It is the first time Fine Gael has won a plurality of seats and marks a personal triumph for the party leader, Enda Kenny, who took over the leadership after the nadir of the 2002 election, when the party won just thirty-one seats.
The weak electoral presence of the left has always marked out Ireland as an exception among its European partners. This was always likely to change following the economic crisis in which Ireland found – and still finds – itself. Indeed, for a while in 2010, opinion polls put Labour as the biggest party in the country, for the first time ever. So, despite achieving record gains, Labour will be disappointed that it won only half as many votes and seats as Fine Gael. Indeed, its share of the vote was only a few percentage points higher than Fianna Fáil, but the inability of Fianna Fáil’s candidates to attract preferences ensured that Labour was always going to win substantially more seats. In the end, its total of thirty-seven beat a previous record of thirty-three, set in 1992.
Other left-wing groups to profit from the low esteem in which centre-right, laissez-faire economic policies are now held included Sinn Féin, the United Left Alliance and an assortment of independent left-wing candidates. Once the political wing of the paramilitary Irish Republican Army, Sinn Féin for a long time refused to recognise the sovereignty of the Irish parliament. Having decided to participate in Dáil elections as recently as 1986, the party has slowly and steadily built up a base of support since it won its first seat in 1997. While Sinn Féin struggled to convince the electorate of the credibility of its economic policies, it was boosted by two particular events: a spectacular by-election victory last November and the decision of party leader Gerry Adams to resign his Westminster seat in favour of contesting the Dáil election. Adams proved successful in his campaign, along with thirteen of his colleagues, beating the party’s previous high of five TDs in 2002. Elsewhere on the left, five candidates from the United Left Alliance (made up of the Socialist Party, the People before Profit Alliance and the Workers and Unemployed Action Group) were successful, including the Socialist Party’s Member of the European Parliament, Joe Higgins.
One of the most interesting stories of the 2011 election was the number of independent candidates elected. At the time of writing this was fourteen, the most since 1941. The success of independents has been one of the exceptional features of the Irish political system, and there have been more independents elected to the Irish parliament than the combined total in other western democracies. The 2011 crop of independents include “Ming” Flanagan, who had previously run on the issue of cannabis legalisation; Mick Wallace, a building developer with debts of €40 million; Shane Ross, a senator and high-profile economic commentator; Michael Healy-Rae, whose father had supported previous Fianna Fáil–led minority administrations; and John Halligan, a former Workers’ Party councillor.
Another record was set by the number of women elected to parliament. The total of twenty-six female TDs surpasses the previous high of twenty-two, though barely so. Ireland has now jumped from eighty-fifth to seventy-sixth on the league table of gender representation in parliament, overtaking the likes of Zimbabwe, Gabon and Burkina Faso. Twelve new female TDs were elected, but – again highlighting the problems the party faces – Fianna Fáil will have no female representation in the new parliament.
SUCH was the change at the 2011 election. But the disinterested observer could be forgiven for thinking that this simply amounts to a game of musical chairs. As has happened at all previous elections when Fianna Fáil has lost office, the signs are that it will be replaced by a Fine Gael–Labour coalition. Certainly this government will have a record number of seats in the Dáil (112, or 67 per cent), but this was achieved with barely a majority of votes. No new parties were elected to parliament; in fact there is one fewer party than in the previous Dáil. There are more independents, but only one more than was elected in 2002.
The government-in-waiting is hardly fresh-faced either. Enda Kenny, who will be Taoiseach (prime minister), is the father of the house and will be the oldest TD to take that position for the first time. His thirty-six-year parliamentary career includes just two and a half years as a government minister, and in a very minor post at that. His cabinet colleagues are likely to include the sixty-seven-year-old Michael Noonan, Pat Rabbitte (aged sixty-one), Ruairi Quinn (sixty-four), Joan Burton (sixty-one) and Fergus O’Dowd (sixty-one). Richard Bruton (fifty-seven), James Reilly (fifty-five), Róisín Shortall (fifty-six) and Brendan Howlin (fifty-four) are among the younger members tipped for a seat in government.
To those who think that Kenny performed an electoral miracle in ousting the dominant Fianna Fáil from office, it is worth remembering that this election presented him with an open goal. Fianna Fáil’s mismanagement of the economy, which resulted in a bailout by the International Monetary Fund in late 2010, created a deep sense of anger in the electorate. One thousand (mainly young) people are leaving Irish shores every week in search of employment. In a forlorn attempt to shore up its vote, Fianna Fáil changed its leader a month before the election, but this could not prevent the electorate from punishing the party at the ballot box. In all likelihood, nothing could have prevented this. Ireland has been teetering on the verge of bankruptcy for the past year. Its banks are insolvent, and only a government guarantee on all deposits saved the banking system from collapse. All the gains made in the era of the Celtic Tiger have quickly disappeared. It was inevitable that the party in power since 1997 was going to be punished.
In this context, Fine Gael’s vote of 36 per cent and Labour’s 19 per cent need to be re-evaluated. Fine Gael achieved a higher vote in 1982 when it faced a strong Fianna Fáil party (which then had 45 per cent support). Labour matched its 1992 vote, but it too faced a stronger Fianna Fáil then. The level of economic collapse is unprecedented in the state’s history, and the ability of Fine Gael and Labour to convince barely over one-third of the electorate (turnout was 70 per cent) of their credentials is revealing. Evidently, a significant minority of Irish voters see the party system as stale; hence, the 15 per cent support levels for independents and others.
WHAT are the consequences for the parties? The Irish party system has traditionally been described as a civil war model. The two poles of the party system, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, are the descendants of those who split over the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. This treaty gave Ireland a limited form of independence and cemented the partition of the island. South of the border, a civil war was fought over this issue, with those who formed the first government of the new state fighting against those who demanded full independence for the whole island. Fine Gael represents the pro-Treaty tradition, Fianna Fáil the anti-Treatyites. For decades, party competition in the new state revolved around the competition between these parties, with Labour a minor player, rarely accumulating more than 10 per cent support.
Although Fianna Fáil was originally to the left of centre in its ideology, and Fine Gael to the right, there were only two possible government formations: Fianna Fáil on its own (the party refused to countenance coalition until 1989) or a Fine Gael–Labour coalition. Since the more left-wing Labour Party found it difficult to stomach Fine Gael’s conservative policies, Fianna Fáil single-party government was more often than not the only option after an election.
These rules slowly began to unravel in the late 1960s. First, Fine Gael moved to a more social democratic model, making coalition with Labour more feasible. Then, as its support base declined to around 40 per cent, Fianna Fáil was forced to embrace coalition, first with the liberal Progressive Democrats, later with Labour, and then with the Green Party. What this meant for the party system was that all bets were off in terms of government formation – with one exception. A Fianna Fáil–Fine Gael coalition was still considered out of the question, most particularly among those within these parties. Even though the two civil war enemies were closest to each other in terms of policy and ideology, it was claimed that they could not work together. The size of their majority would be too large and there would be no effective opposition to what would be a permanent government. Those on the left, however, said that a grand coalition of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael was natural and that these two parties were colluding to prevent the emergence of a normal left–right political cleavage, as is present in most of Ireland’s European neighbours. Such a cleavage, it was argued, would give the left a stronger raison d’être. Once the electoral competition began to revolve around the policies of the left in relation to those of the civil war parties, it was considered that the left would inevitably grow and support for the civil war parties would decline, resulting in their reunification.
The result of the 2011 election means that there is a possibility of real change in party competition. The two civil war parties won their lowest combined total, 53 per cent. Those on the left (virtually everyone else in the Dáil, apart from a few localised independents) won their largest-ever combined vote, almost 40 per cent. Given the parties’ similar policy orientations and the numbers involved, a Fine Gael–Fianna Fáil coalition seems the most obvious coalition. To those with long-term ambitions in Labour, a spell on the opposition benches would be a far more strategic step to take than government with Fine Gael. The new government has to take a number of drastic measures to fix Ireland’s economy, which means more tax hikes, welfare cuts and reductions in public service employment. In other words, victory at the 2011 election is a poisoned chalice. Were Labour to remain in opposition, it could develop as a real alternative voice to the centre-right policies of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Despite the successes of this election, Labour remains largely an urban party and it needs to build on these gains nationwide if it is to become a major party for the first time.
At the time of writing, it looks as if Fine Gael will be either seven or eight seats short of a majority. Some in the party have not ruled out the possibility of forming a minority government with the support of like-minded independents. Although such a scenario would give the opposition in parliament more significance, it is not a development that Fianna Fáil would welcome. The party is pretty demoralised as it is, and a single-party Fine Gael government would leave it squeezed in opposition between Labour and Sinn Féin.
Indeed, the future of Fianna Fáil is one of the big talking points of this election. Dominant parties in other regimes, such as the Progressive Conservatives in Canada, have fought back from similar meltdowns. But such is the scale of the economic collapse in Ireland that some commentators have questioned whether Fianna Fáil has the energy and desire for a prolonged period on the backbenches. A significant number of its parliamentary party, including two former party leaders and several outgoing ministers, decided against contesting the 2011 elections, evidence of low morale in the Fianna Fáil camp. Some have suggested a re-branding, perhaps even a new name for the party. In a strange move, the party’s leader, Micheál Martin, is re-opening alliance talks with the Social and Democratic Labour Party in Northern Ireland, a party that has been on the slide for the past twenty years.
Martin, a published historian, is aware of a historical precedent, namely Sinn Féin’s obliteration of the once-dominant Home Rule Party in 1918. While there is not yet any equivalent party in 2011 to send Fianna Fáil to an early grave, the party does face a number of logistical problems. Its low number of Dáil seats will result in a significant loss in state funding for the party, of somewhere between €1 and 2 million. This comes at a particularly difficult time for the party, as it is also rumoured to be almost €3 million in debt. Membership had already suffered a significant decline before the economic crisis, with an internal report claiming several years ago that there were just 15,000 active party members – a figure that is likely to have fallen further. Fianna Fáil also has a limited pool of potential future Dáil candidates from which to rebuild. The party suffered record losses in the 2004 and 2009 local elections, losing a total of almost half of its councillors.
WHATEVER the future for the parties, perhaps of more interest to the academic community will be what happens in the area of political reform. For once, this was an issue that seemed to engage the electorate: there was a sense that the Irish political system was not fit for purpose and had contributed to the economic meltdown. All of the political parties produced substantial documents on political reform, predominantly focusing on four institutions: the electoral system, local government, parliament and the public sector. All parties, with the exception of the Greens, are in favour of abolishing the Seanad, the upper house.
To this end, the Fine Gael leader, Enda Kenny, has promised that his first one hundred days in power will deliver substantial change for Ireland. All ambassadors and government representatives will be recalled from overseas for a detailed briefing on how to market Ireland as an investment opportunity. Government ministers will be allowed to concentrate exclusively on their portfolios, ignoring their constituency demands (Ireland is one of the few democracies, following a Westminster tradition, where ministers are also MPs). Legislation to implement the party’s policies on political reform will be introduced to parliament; the sitting hours of the Dáil will be extended; and, perhaps of more immediate consequence for the cabinet, ministers will have to car pool.
It remains to be seen what reforms will be introduced, particularly since the economic problems are so pressing. Whatever the outcome, the Irish political system is in a state of flux, both in terms of its actors – the parties – and its institutions. It may go one way, it may go another, or it may return to its old patterns. This time round, though, the future lies very much with the political actors. It is they who will determine the shape of the political institutions and the pattern of party competition. Whether the Irish electorate is happy with this scenario, or whether it is desirable, is a matter for another day. •
Liam Weeks is a Visiting IRCHSS CARA fellow at Macquarie University, where he is funded by the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences and the European Commission.