On 26 February 2016, 65% of the Irish population went to polls and voted for their preferred representatives to Dáil Éireann. After being elected, the thirty second Dáil met for the very first time on 10 March 2016 for the purpose of forming the new government and electing the Prime Minister (Taoiseach) to become its head, but unsuccessfully. This was only the beginning of the longest negotiations in Irish history to form the new government.
Before getting any deeper into the discussion of the results of general election, it is helpful to analyse the Irish party system in order to understand why it functions as it does. There exist numerous definitions of party systems and attempts to categorize them according to certain features. In the broadest sense, as Lane and Pennings (1998) suggest “Party systems may be defined as structures of party competition and cooperation” (p. 5). In this article, I will approach the party system more narrowly as “…the more or less stable configuration of political parties that normally compete in national elections” (Bale, 2005 as cited in Adshead and Tonge, 2009, p. 88). However, I will also draw on Lane and Pennings’s (1998) factors shaping party systems and thus making it possible to distinguish them throughout countries. Some of them are: number of parties, fractionalization, polarity, cleavage structures or issue dimensions (p. 5). In this sense, I will firstly analyse the Irish party system with respect to the mentioned factors. Next, I will take a closer look on the structural factors determining the nature of the Irish party system and lastly, I will discuss the results of the latest election and respond to the question whether it fits into the traditional pattern of the Irish party system.
Irish legislature is called Oireachtas and consists of two houses – the lower house, Dáil Éireann and the upper house, Seanad Éireann. There are 158 seats to be filled by preferred candidates in direct elections that take place every four years. Seanad is, on the contrary, not directly elected by popular vote. Its 60 seats are filled by 11 members appointed by Prime Minister, 6 are elected by two university constituencies and councillors and parliamentarians elect 43 members. However, when the government is formed, Taoiseach, Tánaiste and the Minister of Finance must be members of Dáil. What is interesting about Ireland is that it preserves its distinctiveness in political terminology. Most of the terms are officially used in Irish equivalent, for example as was already mentioned, the legislature is not Parliament but Oireachtas, the Prime Minister is Taoiseach and his/her deputy Tánaiste. Teachta Dála (TD) stands for member of parliament (MP). What is also rare but understandable is that strongly republican party Sinn Féin still continues to apply its policy of abstentionism in Westminster, and in Northern Ireland it is not even registered as a party.
As far as the number of parties is concerned, there are two dominant opposed parties in Ireland – Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael that traditionally alternate in governing. However, when it comes to the formation of government, it is not common that one of the dominant parties rules by majority as a single party in government so coalitions are frequent and typical. Traditional pattern of coalitions usually comprises of Fine Gael with Labour or then Fianna Fáil with smaller parties or perhaps even with the independents. The role of the third party is in Ireland more important than, to compare, in the UK. Therefore, the party system in Ireland can be characterised rather as two-and-a-half-party system (Farrell, 1970; O’Leary, 1979, as cited in Broughton and Donovan, 1999, p. 32). Moreover, in Ireland it is more common that there are more independents in the legislature. The reason for this has structural roots which will be mentioned further below. Taking into consideration Ireland’ population and area, there are surprisingly numerous parties competing in elections, this year the number reached was 17 (Kelleher, n.d.).
With regards to fractionalization and polarization of the Irish party system, the degree of fragmentation of the Irish two-and-a-half-party system is logically lower than of multiparty systems. There is rather a steady share of votes in every election between the two biggest and most dominant parties, however the fluctuation of the votes received is higher. The third party also receives steady share of votes and minor parties still receive disproportionally lower share of votes compared to the main three parties. The number of parties in Dáil is relatively high, however they are disproportionately influential. Therefore it can be said that the Irish party system is externally rather cohesive than fragmented. However, internally, parties are rather fragmented. In relation to the polarization of the Irish party system, it can be said that the system is as well bi-polar but instead of economic or social issues, it is national question that plays role more. On the one side of spectre stand more radical republicans Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin whereas on the other side is more moderate Fine Gael. The question of state and its position with respect to the UK was central issue in Irish politics and caused this polarity, which is, however, losing on intensity since national question is not that relevant anymore.
In relation to the cleavage structure, ideology and issue dimensions, as it was already mentioned, the theory of ideological division of political parties into left-right political spectrum based on the attitude to social and economic questions is not applicable in Ireland. The left-right ideological division of parties has never been that relevant factor for their characterization. As Bowman (n.d.) suggests: “Clearly Irish politics has had an unusual relationship with class ideology in comparison to its Western neighbours” (p. 65). Irish political parties have no tradition of being predominantly focused on social or economic issues and therefore the left-right ideology is harder to apply on Irish parties. However, it is still possible to find traces of left-right division within Irish political parties. From the parties elected to Dáil, the centre/centre-right comprises of Fianna Fáil which is identified with populism, conservativism, republicanism and is a typical example of catch-all-party type. Fine Gael can be also assigned to the centre-right with its emphasis on liberal conservativism, pro-europeanism and Christian democratic ideology. The party is more to the right than Fianna Fáil. To the centre-right also belongs Renua Ireland with its ideology of economic liberalism. On the other side, on the centre-left there is The Labour Party which is a social democratic party and Social Democrats. As leftist parties can be considered Sinn Féin, a republican and social democratic party and Workers’ and Unemployed Action Group. In the very far-left side stands Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit. The far-right party is missing in Ireland. To sum it up, the Irish dominant parties are hard to be ideologically distinguished from each other, however, this fact has been recently changing in the last years.
With respect to structural factors, it is crucial to point out that the Irish party system is determined by its electoral system. Ireland uses a very rare type of electoral system, the proportional representation – single transferable vote (PR-STV), which is considered to be the world’s oldest type of electoral system and apart from Ireland used in the same way only in Malta. It’s functioning is rather simple – voters rank as many candidates (regardless of party) as they wish by applying the principle of the order of preference. The votes are counted using the Droop quota and consequently the very first candidate who meets or exceeds the quota is elected. The surpluses of votes he received exceeding the quota is then redistributed to other candidates based on the order of preference. In case that none of the candidates manages to reach the surplus of votes, the one with least number of votes is eliminated from the competition and his votes are then redistributed to the preferred candidates. This process goes on until all seats in Dáil are filled.
What are the consequences of this type of electoral system on Irish party system formation? Since voters give their votes to candidates they are enabled to cross party lines. They can therefore vote on their candidates’ attitude to issues rather than party ideology. This encourages nonpartisan politics, and the above mentioned increased number of independents in Dáil. However, it also causes higher fragmentation as far as the internal unity of parties is concerned: “…STV is criticised because of the intense competition that it generates between candidates, especially candidates of the same party. More members of parliament of Fianna Fáil, the largest party, are defeated by other Fianna Fáil candidates than by candidates of other parties” (Gallagher, n.d.). Some may argue that it produces instable government, which would be logical. However, this assumption is not applicable in Ireland because the two-and-a-half party system is one of the most stable ones: “Many of these criticisms have, however, proved to be little trouble in practice. STV elections in the Republic of Ireland and Malta have tended to produce relatively stable, legitimate governments comprising one or two main parties” (The Electoral Knowledge Network, n.d.). The reason of existence of two-and-a-half party system and its stability is not primarily the consequence of the electoral system, but rather of historical traditional division.
Another factor that has direct implications on the Irish party system is history, more precisely cleavage structure. Despite class and social cleavages are not significant, it is the national question that played a crucial and most probably the substantial role in forming Irish party politics. Even though it may seem odd that in Ireland the religion and class cleavages are less salient, especially when republicanism was usually connected with Christianity and unionism with Protestantism and landed elite as a result of British regulated plantation. As Magone (2009) suggests “The main cleavage is a historical one, which goes back to the emergence of the Irish Free State out of the British Empire, and the Treaty that was signed with the British government” (p. 430). The already mentioned polarization of Irish party system stems from pro-independence party Sinn Féin splitting into two fractions: Pro-Treaty oriented Fine Gael and anti-Treaty Fianna Fáil. These parties were further splitting and new ones emerged which form contemporary party system.
The formation of Irish government after the polls were over was not an easy task. Actually, it took 70 days for the government to be formed. Following the results of the election, none of the parties managed to enjoy overall majority (80 seats out of 158). At the beginning it seemed that another election would be necessary since the parties could not have come to consensus. One of the most controversial points on which parties could not have agreed was the Irish Water issue. Originally, the Irish population was not required to pay for its household water charges, until recently they were paid by general taxation. However, in 2013 the Irish Water company was established in order to measure the costs of domestic water consumption which met with strong opposition of population unwilling to pay the bills. This issue was not a novelty; in fact it has been a matter of controversy from the late 1970s. Whether to pay or not to pay domestic water charges, that continues to be the question for Irish governments and their programmes. The Irish were enjoying and exemption from the EU under Water Framework Directive, Article 9.4. However, according to the contemporary Taoiseach Enda Kenny (FG), in order to abide with the EU law, sooner or later “You [the homeowners] are going to have to pay” (Sheahan, 2016). The main parties – Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael split on the issue of whether the charges should be suspended (Fianna Fáil) or the allowance system introduced (establishing certain amount of water consumption in households that citizens would not be obliged to pay for – Fine Gael). The parties failed to elect a Taoiseach in the first, second and third vote. On the fourth vote, the leader of Fine Gael, Enda Kenny was re-elected as a Taoiseach of the 32nd Dáil. This was possible only because Fine Gael has come to consensus with the Independents, since the government consisting of two traditionally oppositional parties was unsustainable. As a result, the minority government was formed, consisting of Fine Gael and the Independents who for their support were given control over less strategically important ministries. For the formation of minority government, Fine Gael needed to secure 58 seats, what was also the precondition demanded by Fianna Fáil in order to support the minority government. This turned out to be successful given the support of 9 independents.
If we look on current constellation of political parties in 32nd Dáil we can observe that as far as the number of parties is involved, the system remains stable. There is traditionally one of the two dominant parties governing with the support of the minor party. The result is a coalition, but this time quite non-typical for Ireland – the minority government. In this sense the current situation differs from the established party system. Moreover, the crucial importance of the support of the independents proves that the system is rather two-and-a-half party than two-party system. The share of votes received by dominant parties is as traditionally steady, with no greater fluctuation and with minor parties receiving disproportionally lower turnout of votes. It cannot be said that the results of Election of 2016 were exemption from the traditional party system of Ireland, but what was exceptional was that they gave rise to minority government and the formation of Fine Gael-Independent minority government in Ireland and the negotiations that preceded it “…have been the longest in the history of the state” (O’Halloran and Bardon, 2016).
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