Ireland: the odd one out


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.

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  1. I have to take exception to one of your statements, regarding the alignment of parties across national borders. While psephologically it appears neat to compare ALP/Labour parties with the Liberals in Canada and the Democrats in the US, this doesn’t hold up under serious examination of their social bases.

    Take the US Democrats: the main party of slavery during the Civil War and one of the main parties of US business for over 150 years. It only really took on policies suggestive of the Left in two major phases: (1) a relatively mild program of state intervention and concessions to unions in the 1930s called the New Deal, and (2) the co-option of progressive activists in the late 60s/early 70s in an attempt to neuter the radical social movements that were destabilising the country at the time. While social movements and unions have repeatedly put great efforts into campaigning for the Democrats, they have been rewarded with few of the institutional ties and barely any of the traditional Left program that marks the ALP’s relationship with (especially) the trade unions.

    There is a particular nature to ALP-style parties that leads to a much stronger working class and progressive voter adherence to them. The Democrats and Republicans often have little difference in their voter profiles (see 2004), although the Democrats have been much better at trying to mobilise left and working class votes at other times (see 2008). The ALP has always maintained a large and consistent class-identified core vote and despite occasional apparent collapse in voter support maintains this between elections.

    We shouldn’t mistake the absence of labour movement based or progressive parties in countries like the US (or their relative weakness in countries like Canada and Ireland) for a neat parallel between the ALP and open parties of big business in other countries.

    Neither should we be entranced by the ALP’s craven approach to business as a sign it is no longer a party of the workers’ movement and the Left. The ALP has always been a party of rotten compromises and concessions to big business because it’s main aim is to make capitalism nicer for workers. And that means being nice to capitalism (or as Rudd puts it, saving capitalism from itself).

    Nevertheless, it remains the political expression of the trade union bureaucracy, and as such remains open to (indirect) pressure from its working class support base–witness the destruction of the Iemma Government by Unions NSW over electricity privatisation when ALP policies undermined the union leaders’ ability to save face among their memberships (remembering that the unions, despite shrinkage, remain the largest and potentially strongest voluntary organisations in the country).

  2. I don’t disagree with the fact that the Democrats and the Canadian Liberals have different historical roots, and that can have an effect on how they function (including the union links, although you’d have to say they’ve been pretty much extinguished in the leadership of the British Labour Party, even if there are some backbenchers with links to the union movement).

    But my point was more the fact that it is still possible to draw loose parallels. There are clear “left-of-centre” and “right-of-centre” major parties in the other five developed Anglophone countries, even though you could dispute where the ‘centre’ lies.

    In contrast, I’ve found it almost impossible to find any vaguely coherent explanation of the divide between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, beyond the divisions of the Irish Civil War. Both parties are seen as conservative, which bizarrely means both also have to appeal to the left.

    And of course, I should include the usual disclaimer that the left-right political spectrum is a blunt and inaccurate instrument at best in analysing ideology. But it completely breaks down when it comes to Ireland’s major parties.

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