An Ireland Divided?

By Elaine Byrne

Since 2007, the Irish Times and Sunday Business Post polls suggest that a fundamental shift in the Irish party system is occurring. Any analysis of electoral volatility often focuses on the left/right divide.

But are we asking the wrong question? Is the ongoing earthquake within the Irish political landscape also because of an emerging divide between rural and urban Ireland, between a young Ireland saddled with dept and an older more conservative Ireland? Are their undertones within the current Fine Gael leadership contest which further suggest this?

Labour for instance, are a party of urban Ireland. At last year’s local elections it became the biggest party in Dublin and is on course to radically increase its eight seats in the capital. Labour registered very weak levels of support across large tracts of the political landscape. Although it contested every constituency in 2007, Labour failed to win over 5 per cent of the vote in any of the Connacht-Ulster constituencies (apart from Galway West) as well as Clare, Cork North-West, Laois-Offaly and Meath-West (Adrian Kavanagh has analysed this here:
Other Left
Clearly identifiable left wing candidates topped the poll in 17 of the 22 Dublin wards, including the remarkable 4,194 first preferences by Damian O’Farrell, protege of Finian McGrath. Fianna Fáil’s Eoin Ryan has been sent to the political wilderness by the Socialist Party’s Joe Higgins in the capital’s European Elections.
Fianna Fáil
The 2009 local elections returned a largely rural Fianna Fáil political party. In Dublin, the party is fourth behind Labour, Fine Gael and Independents, holding fewer than 12 of Dublin City Council’s 52 seats. In Cork City Council, the party has just five seats out of 31. Limerick City Council and Waterford City Council have just one Fianna Fáil representative each, while in Galway City Council the party holds only three of 15 seats. Meanwhile, Brian Crowley flies the only urban flag for Fianna Fáil in the European Parliament.
Fine Gael
Fine Gael has lost 7 points in the Dublin region in the six months since January’s Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll. Labour now has almost double the support that Fine Gael has in the capital. Fine Gael’s core constituency is becoming more rural and older in character. It does best among the 50-64 age group and the over-65s while its weakest category remains the 25-34 age group, according to the January poll. The urban – rural divide is in terms of public support for the party, not with regard to internal support for Enda Kenny or Richard Bruton. Electorally the party are stronger in rural rather than urban Ireland. The various polls over the last two years confirm this trend.

Leo Varadkar analyses it very well in his September 2007 Irish Times opinion piece:

“The election result also reveals a growing regional disparity for the party. Fine Gael did extraordinarily well in Connacht. This was due to a large extent to the personal popularity of Enda Kenny. We also did very well in Munster. However, in Leinster we gained only three seats, none of which were at the expense of Fianna Fáil. Meanwhile, in Dublin the election of 10 deputies disguised a relatively poor vote of 18.7 per cent compared with 22.3 per cent in 1997.

Here lies the real dilemma for Fine Gael: it did so well in Connacht and Munster that the prospect of further gains is limited. However, there is a clear potential to make more than 10 gains in Dublin, Leinster and Cavan-Monaghan. To do this, we will have to embrace urban and suburban Ireland, adopt a more modern cosmopolitan image and develop policies that will appeal to the hundreds of thousands of uncommitted swing voters in cities, county towns and commuter belts across Ireland.”

9 thoughts on “An Ireland Divided?

  1. A very useful analysis: thanks. Broadly, the shift of population in Ireland from rural to urban areas has paralleled the trend to the left, particularly in Dublin.
    There is also a false-positive commuting type of rural dweller who bought a house in the country but lives and works in the city. This trend isn’t going to go into reverse.

  2. Interesting post Elaine, thanks for that. The urban-rural trend does seem to be becoming even more apparent in recent years and especially as the dominance of the two maiin parties starts to wane in relative terms, with their main support bases becoming increasingly rural. This dimension is also apparent in a divide within independent ranks – “FF independents” in rural areas versus left wing independents in cities. And of course, the smaller parties tend to especially rely on urban Ireland for support – e.g. Greens in urban middle class areas, Socialist Party in urban working class areas.

  3. Good assessment Elaine. I think the divide is getting greater although to some extent its always been there. In past however FF & FG kept this divide within, but differences between how urban and rural machines operate has always been striking. Indeed both parties have even moved to formalise the difference organisationally. I am not convinced its purely to do with age/conservatism although that is certainly an element, there is however a personality type too. Rural areas pay huge attention to things like tradition and loyalty, mainly because in rural areas they would personally know a politician where this is not possible in the larger urban areas for many people. The system doesnt reach them and most of the candidates are strangers apart from the literature they see, therefore there is far less feeling that they are obliged to be loyal to a candidate.

    City areas are also at the forfront of experimentation through the willingness to accept new ideas. Aside from politics in other organisations like the GAA this is evident too. Much less popuous counties than Dublin are far more successful because of those attitudes of loyalty, local pride and the access GAA provides ahead of any other sport. Whereas in Urban areas there are several sports to choose from, people more willing to give up GAA for something else and also far less identification with the ‘county’ again due to lack of personal relationships. Hence despite having the largets potential pool GAA in Dublin is not the dominant force it could be in the country.

    The point was also made to me once and I dont know if I agree, but someone made a convincing argument that its a hangover of the ‘land’ issue and throughout history those who own land are always afraid of very radical changes, while urban areas without land ownership are more receptive. Whether at this stage such a hangover could still exist Im not sure.

  4. Richard Bruton was quoted in the Times yesterday saying we need to return to “a genuine, authentic Ireland not the glitzy, garish Ireland the Celtic Tiger produced”. Is this the opposite of what Leo Varadkar was hoping for, a Dublin TD willing to pander to the rural voter?

  5. There are regional disparities in party strengths, but are there regional disparities in the issues that concern people? Unemployment is not a singularly urban or rural problem. Nor is excessive household debt. Nor is crime. It is regularly reported that drug-taking is a major problem in rural areas. What accounts for the regional disparities if it isn’t these types of issues?

  6. Its frightening how openly Machavelian Varadkar is in his contribution above. “To do this, we will have to embrace urban and suburban Ireland, adopt a more modern cosmopolitan image and develop policies that will appeal to the hundreds of thousands of uncommitted swing voters in cities, county towns and commuter belts across Ireland.”

    Maybe I am being old fashioned and nieve but how about developing Policies you believe in? Leo comments would have us believe that David Quinn has a point in Todays indo. What do FG stand for? What ever hundreds of thousands of uncommitted swing voters in Urban areas want them to.

  7. Pingback: Red C Poll 27 June: How Do Figures Translate Into Seats? «

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