As the economic crisis worsens and speculation of an early election in Ireland increases, it seemed about time to give Australian psephologists a crash-course in Irish politics. I’ll follow this up with another post about the possible early election later today.
Ireland is probably the most unique and fascinating of political systems amongst the rich anglophone countries. They have a very different electoral system and a very different party system to countries like the UK, Canada, the US and Australia, and even New Zealand.
Irish politics is dominated by two major parties who both sit on the conservative side of the spectrum when it comes to European politics and are hard to identify in the way that it is easy to align the Labour parties in Britain, New Zealand and Australia with the Liberals in Canada and the US Democrats, and align their conservative opponents. The two parties’ origins lie in the divisions over the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, which triggered the Irish Civil War.
The current government is led by Fianna Fáil (Gaelic for “Soldiers of Destiny”, pronounced “Feena Foll”), which originated in the anti-treaty elements during the Irish Civil War. It calls itself a “centrist’ party, and has tended to be Ireland’s dominant party.
The opposition is led by Fine Gael (pronounced “Finna Gale”) which can be described as “Christian democratic”. Again, like Fianna Fail, Fine Gael does not clearly distinguish itself as a centre-left or centre-right party. FG is considered to be more moderate in its nationalism while FF is considered more neoliberal in its economic policies.
Ireland’s electoral system allows access for a number of other parties. Like the ACT and Tasmania, the lower house of the Irish Parliament, the Dáil Éireann, is elected using the Single Transferable Vote. 43 constituencies across the Republic of Ireland elect 166 deputies, or TDs (“Teachta Dála”), with each constituency electing three, four or five deputies.
The outstanding third party in Irish politics is the Labour Party, which, as its name would suggest, is the main working-class and union political party. Unlike its namesakes in the UK and Australia, the party never achieved major party status and as such is considered to be further to the left, although Ireland is generally a conservative country, which could contribute to this perception. The party won 12% in 2007 and in recent years has been most closely aligned with Fine Gael.
The Irish Green Party came fourth at the 2007 election, electing six TDs. The party aligns with the European Green Party and the Global Greens, with similar policies to most Green parties.
The Dail also currently includes 4 Sinn Fein TDs. The party, unlike in Northern Ireland, is largely sidelined and stands out as a quasi-revolutionary far-left nationalist party. It has in the past attempted to work on a “common left front” of Labour, the Greens and Sinn Fein, overlooking their major differences. The party is directly linked to its Northern Ireland namesake.
The other party in the Dail at the 2007 election was the Progressive Democrats, a neoliberal party founded as a splinter from Fianna Fail in the 1980s. The party was FF’s main ally in Bertie Ahern’s government for its first two terms from 1997 until 2007, when the party lost six of its eight seats. The party decided to disband in December 2008 and both its remaining TDs now sit as independents supporting the Fianna Fail government.
Five years of Fine Gael/Labour government from 1982 to 1987 were followed by a Fianna Fail minority government from 1987 to 1989, when an attempt to win a majority resulted in losses for Fianna Fail and a coalition with the much-reduced Progressive Democrats.
This government collapsed in 1992, which saw an election where the Labour party gained a large number of seats and was put in a position where the only possible government was Fianna Fail/Labour. This government was succeeded in 1994 by a Fine Gael/Labour/Democratic Left government, which governed until it was defeated by a Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrats coalition at the 1997 election.
I write all this to demonstrate the remarkable stability of the last decade. Bertie Ahern led a new coalition government to become Taoiseach (Irish term for Prime Minister) at the 1997 election. The collapse in Labour’s seat numbers saw Fianna Fail and the PDs almost reach a majority, which they did with the support of independent TDs. At the 2002 election, Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats gained four seats each, resulting in 89 seats out of 166, a solid majority in Irish terms.
Ahern led the party to a third election in 2007, where Fianna Fail was reduced to its 1997 position, but a recovery in support for Fine Gael and the collapse of the Progressive Democrats resulted in a new Fianna Fail/Green/Progressive Democrats government. When Ahern retired as Taoiseach in 2008, he was the second longest-serving in modern Irish history.
My next post: The economic crisis, the Brian Cowen government, the collapse of Fianna Fail, and calls for an early election.