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Cracks in the Mould

Thomas O’Neill

How Ireland Voted 2016: The Election that Nobody Won, Michael Gallagher and Michael Marsh (eds), Palgrave Macmillan, 380 pp, ISBN: 978-3319408880

There is a view of evolution which argues that for long periods things move at a slow pace and then quite suddenly – in geological terms – there is a rush of change. Perhaps something similar happens in politics. Certainly the political pace has picked up recently. The electorate in this small state has recently heard the term “multiple challenges” quite a bit and it is unlikely that it will be consigned to the linguistic dustbin before the next election, when voters will be choosing the people they feel are most likely to meet those challenges successfully and keep the state afloat. In these circumstances it seems likely that the Irish will revert to the pattern long established before the last election and place their faith in the major parties, notwithstanding the widespread and vague desire, reflected in opinion polls, for substantial change in our politics.

The new “challenges” facing the country mostly come from outside, which is not to say that some could not have been foreseen. They are linked to the great adventure on which the British have embarked. It has been suggested that Ireland’s place in the world is at stake. Fintan O’Toole has argued that Brexit has the potential to divide the island of Ireland between two differing world orders. Britain it is said, with its need for quick trade deals, could be drawn into the gravitational field of the Trump world including its hostility towards liberal democracy, transnational institutions and established Western political values. But according to Economist foreign correspondent John Andrews in his book The World in Conflict, the present EU order is under pressure from populism, disillusionment, prolonged economic hardship, instability in the Middle East and North Africa and a growing threat from Russia. Assuming the EU responds with a vigorous restatement of its core values the border between the South and North of Ireland could be geopolitical and ideological as well as economic and political. But this may not involve especially bleak implications. Ireland has long enjoyed being a member of the socially orientated EU while being economically and culturally closely linked to the more neo-liberal Anglo-American world. The state has managed to keep in with both camps for decades. It is not at all impossible that our skills and achievements in this area will survive. However, when it comes to Brexit, the challenge will be greater than simply not falling out with the UK or the EU. Ireland has specific interests flowing from British disengagement which are unique to itself. The two key areas here are the North and the future of our exports to the UK – much of which comes from high employment indigenous companies. The state has made it clear that it sees its future in the EU. The great challenge facing our politicians and diplomats is convincing EU colleagues, especially the more powerful ones, that our interests are in alignment with the long term interests of the Union. Britain will also have to be convinced that it is in its own vital interest not to downgrade the importance of stability in Northern Ireland. Skill, experience and measured analysis will be essential to meet these unprecedented challenges.

Another challenge involves the possibility that President Trump will pull the rug from under US investment in Ireland, a phenomenon which we somewhat grandiosely refer to as our “economic model”. But there is actually an even greater threat in the ether. If the French and/or the Germans decided to leave the EU our political model would be in ruins and it would be back to growing vegetables in the back garden and taking baths on Saturday nights. Happily, this disaster seems, more or less, unlikely.

Certainly worrying signs have developed which are challenging traditional European politics. Hungary is sliding ever more into authoritarianism. The Baltic states are living in fear of their Russian minorities and the Russian state. Austria has seen a rise of the far right, with the Freedom Party presidential candidate having won 46.6 per cent of the vote in last year’s election. In Slovakia, prime minister Robert Fico, leader of the main centre-left party, won by exploiting populism, fear and anti-immigrant sentiment. This month’s general election in the Netherlands will be another test for European liberal democracies, with the far-right, anti-immigrant, anti-Islam, anti-EU PVV(Party for Freedom) currently polling strongly.

In France, Marine Le Pen, with her “ourselves alone” nostrums, seems unlikely to prevail. Many French people may not mind seeing Front National influence at regional and even national (parliamentary) level but would think twice about an FN president. On current polling, Le Pen is such an underdog in projections for the second round of voting that many may feel they can vote for her “to let off steam”, safe in the knowledge that she seems very unlikely to win ‑ a strategy not without risk.

The Germans were never going to vote far right – history, after all, is history and geography is geography. If the Germans decide to get rid of Angela Merkel because she let in too many refugees, they will simply elect instead the equally able and steady Martin Schultz and his Social Democratic Party, which will then become the dominant party in a coalition with the Christian Democrats or, just possibly, with other pro EU elements. So it looks as if we will avoid the ultimate disaster.

 Germany and France will be central in determining the future of the EU. Charles de Gaulle once remarked, with his customary charm, that Europe was France and Germany and the rest were merely the trimmings. He had a point. But when stability and direction is restored to the union it will be up to smaller states to become politically imaginative and effective rather than simply queuing in an orderly line, like so many supplicant and impoverished West Virginias, for a Franco-German audience.

Political effectiveness starts at home. In Politics, Aristotle argued that political education and critical analysis were key elements enabling states, particularly democracies, to function effectively. How Ireland Voted 2016 is therefore welcome as a contribution to our understanding of what happened last year and as an aid to understanding what might happen in the next election. The central question here as elsewhere is whether the people will go further down the populist road or if they will elect the ablest of the level-headed candidates on offer. Fintan O’Toole has expressed the fear that someone like Michael O’Leary (who has portrayed RTÉ as “a rat-infested North Korean union shop”) could become an Irish Donald Trump. But for that to happen there would have to be quite a shift in Irish electoral habits.

According to the editors of How Ireland Voted, the 2011 election was like a “political earthquake”, with the 2016 election resembling an aftershock. This is surely an overstatement in relation to the 2011 result, which saw the long-established alternative government, Fine Gael and Labour, take office following a major Fianna Fáil failure in government. It was hardly an elemental shock. Certainly for one party, Fianna Fáil, the result was very bad but, as has since become clear, far from terminal. However, as Michael Gallagher notes in many ways the 2016 election did not mark a return to pre-2011 normality, the most glaring evidence of this being the historic low levels of support for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. The 2016 election was in the style of the mould-breaker many had been hankering after for decades. It saw a shift, whether permanent or not remains to be seen, towards an altered system of government formation. The result was prefigured in the 2014 local and European elections. Fine Gael and Labour’s support collapsed, while Fianna Fáil began its comeback, becoming the largest party. Sinn Féin trebled its seat numbers and independents became the third largest group.

The authors note that there are some difficulties involved in comparing the results of the 2011 election with those of 2016 since the first was held under the unique circumstances of the economic crash. In addition, there were clear winners in 2011, while there were none in 2016. Certainly the 2016 result produced a far more fragmented political landscape than existed previously. Despite this fragmentation government formation has seen a continuation of the dominance of the two major parties in the state. Is it possible that the electorate are unhappy with the FF-FG understanding and that the fragmentation of 2016 will accelerate in the next election, or is it the case that the stability provided by the alliance is welcome in difficult times and the fragmentation will be reversed next time?

The civil war parties have averaged around 72 per cent of the vote since 1923. As recently as 1982 they won 84 per cent. In 2016, for the first time, both parties got less than 50 per cent. Indeed using the “effective number of parties” scale of Markku Laakso and Rein Taageoera’s work in the journal Comparative Political Studies titled “effective number of parties: a measure with application to West Europe”, Ireland received a 6.57. This equates to the political system being fragmented as if there were 6.57 equal-sized parties. (In this calculation independents are treated as a separate unit, unless they run under a common banner such as the “Independents 4 Change”). Ireland is now at a fragmentation level in the range of Denmark and Switzerland, states known for extremely high levels of this phenomenon. David Farrell and Jane Suiter show that the 2016 election had a similar level of volatility to that of 1927 (when the party system was still in consolidation) and 1943 (at a time of wartime time electoral instability).

Reviewing the breakdown for the various political groupings we can see this fragmentation in action. Fine Gael managed to maintain its position as the largest party. Enda Kenny, moreover, became the first Fine Gael taoiseach to be given a second consecutive term. That was where the good news ended for the party, which did worse than anyone had expected. While the coalition government had overseen an improvement in Ireland’s macro-economic situation and the departure of the Troika, many did not feel these improvements at the micro level. Moreover Fine Gael’s embracing of cutbacks was at odds with the popular desire for improved public services. The party’s vote share dropped 10.6 per cent from 2011, to 25.5 per cent. It lost all its 2011 seat gains. Indeed only in 1992 and 2002 had it received a lower share of the vote. In terms of seats, Fine Gael lost twenty-seven, holding onto forty-nine. Votes were lost across the state, with the worst loss coming in rural areas. The party lost almost 12 per cent of the rural vote, where traditional or Fine Gael-inclined voters had the option of independents, or in some cases giving their “borrowed votes” from 2011 back to Fianna Fáil. Fine Gael did, however, comfortably retain its position as the largest party in Dublin, losing just 7 per cent of its 2011 vote share. This can be attributed both to elements of the middle class and upper class in Dublin doing well under the coalition government and to a lack of alternatives. Potential Fine Gael voters would hardly vote for Sinn Féin or a now more left-leaning Fianna Fáil, or People before Profit. And Renua, although seen as pro-business, never achieved a base level of credibility in a more socially liberal Dublin.

2016 saw a rally for Fianna Fáil, while confirming that it was no longer one of the three pillars of Irish society (the others being the GAA and the Catholic church). When Micheál Martin entered the Dáil as a backbencher in 1989 the winning of seventy-seven seats and 44 per cent of the vote was considered disappointing. In 2016 Martin was considered a saviour for leading the party back to forty-four seats (an increase of twenty-five on 2011) and achieving a 6.9 per cent increase of the vote share, to 24.3 per cent. However, the party continued to have a problem in Dublin, mainly due to the greater options for potential Fianna Fáil voters. Here its vote increased marginally from 2011, from 12 per cent to 15 per cent. The party won six seats in the capital, having been left with none after the death of Brian Lenihan in June 2011. The situation is different outside Dublin, where Fianna Fáil is still the strongest party, winning 27 per cent of the vote and thirty-eight of one hundred and fourteen seats (the low figure highlights the fragmented nature of the 2016 election).

Sinn Féin came out of the 2016 election with both positives and negatives. From its 2011 standing the party increased its vote share by 3.9 per cent to 13.8 per cent and its Dáil seats by nine to twenty-three. Moreover, given the post-election likelihood of a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil coalition or facilitation it seemed possible that Sinn Féin would emerge as the dominant voice of the opposition. The party, furthermore, received support from both urban and rural areas, unlike its other left rivals like the Anti-Austerity Alliance and People before Profit. However its performance was poorer than expected. While the party hopes that “one more push” in the future will take it beyond the thirty-seat mark, given how Sinn Féin came close to winning seats in numerous constituencies, its opponents hope it may have peaked.

The other government coalition member, Labour, felt the full force of the electorate’s wrath. The 2016 election saw a routing of the party. Compared with 2011, it lost two-thirds of its vote share, falling from 19 per cent to 7 per cent, and four-fifths of its seats, falling from thirty-seven to seven (it had lost four during its time in government). This defeat was near enough the worst in the party’s history and even more painful coming after its record high in 2011. This 2011 high was won by Labour’s forceful criticisms of the Fianna Fáil-led coalition. However, once in power, Labour would go on to implement policies similar to those it cried out against. Historically, Labour’s wins and losses are magnified in Dublin and the same again happened in 2016. In 2011 the party’s vote share in the capital rose by fifteen points compared with nine points statewide. In 2016 its vote share fell from 29 per cent to 9 per cent, compared with 13 per cent across the state. Yet despite its hammering in 2016, the party should be able to survive. Unlike other declining Irish parties, it has the fallback of trade unions (even if these links are under threat). Likewise, it still has a significant proportion of the middle class public sector vote to live off, even with the loss of much of its traditional working class vote. Moreover, while Labour is known has the “half” of Ireland’s two-and-a-half party system, coming fourth is not a new experience: it happened before in 1923, 1933, 1944, 1948 and 1987.

Apart from losses to Sinn Féin, Labour’s traditional working class vote came under threat from the combination of the Anti-Austerity Alliance and People before Profit in 2016. The alliance won six seats, just one behind Labour, and it outpolled Labour in Dublin and Cork city. Only one of its members had won a seat in 2011 under that election’s left-wing alliance, with two more winning by-elections during the 31st Dáil. However the alliance’s vote was weak in rural areas. Moreover the two components of the alliance retained their separate identity and ran against each other in three constituencies, receiving almost identical vote totals. Likewise both sides disagreed on signing up to the “Right 2 Change” and on the possibility of going into coalition with Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil or Labour. Given that it is in the nature of left-wing alliances to recall the Judean parties in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the alliance may not be a long-lasting feature in Irish politics.

As for the rest, the smaller parties won 2 per cent of the vote between them. The new Social Democrats retained the three seats of their founders (with Stephen Donnelly leaving the party after the election and more recently joining Fianna Fáil) while coming close to winning a fourth. The Social Democrats indeed won half the number of votes of Labour, a party which is over a hundred years old. The other new party, Renua, failed to hold, let alone add to, any of the seats its members had prior to the election. The party was hampered by being seen as a single-issue anti-abortion party. In contrast the Greens made a comeback, winning two seats after having been wiped out in 2011.

Not least 2016 saw the rise of the independents. A record twenty-three won seats, amounting to one-sixth of the Dáil, and they received 17.8 per cent of the vote. This easily beats the previous record of sixteen in June 1927 and fourteen in 2011. Within this group are several alliances and alliances of convenience, there being four “Independents 4 Change”, six Independent Alliance members and thirteen sole traders. However, as Eoin O’Malley points out, the two Healy-Raes are from the Fianna Fáil “gene pool” while Michael Lowry was originally from the Fine Gael one. Two others were of the moderate left, Maureen O’Sullivan and Katherine Zappone, and three were of the radical left, Catherine Connolly, Seamus Healy and Thomas Pringle. Independents are a singular phenomenon in the Irish political landscape. Most Western and European states either do not allow or elect very few independents.

In thirty-seven industrial democracies since 1945 there have been just twenty cases of independents gaining more than 5 per cent of the national vote. These are Ireland, with eleven cases, and nine in Japan. Indeed Ireland in 2011 represented the first time that independents won more than 10 per cent of the vote in any mainstream democracy since 1950. This is due to several factors. The Irish electoral system of proportional representation by the single transferable vote (PR-STV) facilitates independents. Under this system there are multi-seat constituencies in small population centres, which ensures a low electoral threshold. Likewise voters can rank their preferences, which means independents can attract lower preferences. Moreover Ireland’s local and candidate-centred political culture sometimes leads to personalism and localism being placed above party identification. Furthermore since measurements began in the 1970s Irish voters have registered low levels of closeness to parties compared with voters in other industrial democracies. In 2016 it was measured that 73 per cent of voters stated that they did not feel close to a party. In addition independents have become key to government formation. Of eleven governments from 1980 to 2016, seven ultimately were dependent on independents. In two more governments (those of 2002 and 2011) independents had some bargaining power or were considered to form a single-party minority government.

Various other patterns emerged during the 2016 election. In terms of age, almost 60 per cent of those over thirty-five voted for one of the traditional parties, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil or Labour. Likewise there was a geographic divide between Dublin and the rest of the state. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael won 54 per cent of the vote outside Dublin, while only receiving 38 per cent in the capital. Indeed within Dublin fragmentation was especially high, signalling a move from the old two-and-a-half -system. Michael Marsh and Gail McElroy observe the emergence of a class-based voting pattern. Fine Gael got its votes from the well-off and the middle class. Fianna Fáil continued as a catch-all party. Sinn Féin was twice as successful with working class voters as with middle class ones. Labour, unusually for a labour and social democratic party, did better among middle class voters than among the working class. The Social Democrats emerged, with a distinctive middle class feel, while, surprisingly, the Anti Austerity Alliance-People before Profit had no distinct class profile. This could be explained by the cross-class anger against austerity, the relative newness of the alliance and support from a combination of the working class and middle class socialists.

However this class based pattern should not be confused with traditional class politics, which emerged across Europe largely as a by-product of the suffrage struggles of the nineteenth century and which, as modern political scientists such as the late Peter Mair have argued, have being steadily declining. It is argued that due to the power of the EU, the position of neo-liberalism in global economic terms, immigration, globalisation, the rise of the service sector and a growing middle class that traditional class structures have been weakened, resulting in a move towards a  management approach to politics and a rejection of partisanship. In a 2008 article, Mair examined how globalisation and Europeanisation had led to governments having more limited domestic capabilities, which helped force traditional parties into common positions. Parties have not only lost their ability to shape monetary and fiscal policy; they have also lost the desire to do so. Mair’s overall argument was that politics had become depoliticised, with main parties taking on a near managerial role based on “what works”. Notwithstanding the perspicacity of Mair’s analysis, it is possible, indeed likely, that class will play a significant, though hardly traditional, part in efforts to subordinate the global economy to social control.

The question remains whether political fragmentation in Ireland will continue or not with the next election. It could be argued that in 2011, with a large swathe of the electorate in personal financial difficulty and a cloud of uncertainty over the future, the public was not prepared to take a punt on the politically exotic solutions on offer. But by 2016 there was a feeling that the worst was over and that the country had avoided slipping through the cracks of doom. It was possible for the electorate to lash out a bit and demand a restoration of prelapsarian good times.

But that was then. The feeling of comfort and restoration in the air at the time of the 2016 election has evaporated. Once again there is a smell of fear on the streets. Jobs in companies that export to the UK could be in jeopardy and, who knows, Trump could imperil many in the FDI sector.  These major external threats may turn voters away from the militant localism of independents. Voluble mavericks might meet a similar fate. In that scenario we could see a more stable pattern of FF and FG governments into the future, each supported by a differing cast of minority supporters who, with the unspoken threat of mutual “underwriting”( confidence and supply) by FF or FG in the background, would not be particularly influential.

 For Sinn Féin, given their ambitions to break the mould, this version of Banquo’s heirs ruling into the distant future would be disappointing to say the least. But perhaps they should not be too surprised. After all, all previous attempts to break the mould of civil war politics have failed.

Yet it might be asked, why would FF and FG not work with Sinn Féin as the new half party? The reason has to do with Sinn Féin’s ambition to shape the future of politics on the island. Labour never presented the Civil War parties with an existential threat and as long as they do, every effort will be made to keep Sinn Féin outside the tent. It has to do with that reliable Darwinian instinct to survive. What view the electorate will take over time on these tectonic matters remains to be seen but as Farrell and Suiter’s final chapter suggests, the legacy of the Civil War is here to stay for now, even if its grip on Irish politics has been somewhat weakened.

1/3/2017

Thomas O' Neill has recently completed a Masters Degee in Politica at UCD

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