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: http://nuimgeography.wordpress.com).
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.
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 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.”