Every day there is some opinion piece or other speculating about the possibility of a new political party emerging in Ireland. Journalistic eyes are peeled, watching every movement, signal or nuance from the likes of Lucinda Creighton, Michael McDowell, or any other obvious contenders seen as most likely to lead the way in establishing a new party. But how our political system is set up makes life very difficult for ambitious individuals aspiring to establish a new party. By contrast, it’s very easy for ambitious individuals wanting to run for office as independents.
In Ireland the stakes are set against new parties. As Joe O’Toole’s piece in today’s Irish Times (here) sets out so well, Ireland’s political funding regime is designed to privilege the insiders (the established political parties) over the outsiders (potential new parties). State funding is given only to those parties that have fought a successful election campaign. Meanwhile state regulations of fundraising are designed to prevent large donations from wealthy benefactors – the sort of individuals likely to want to support a new party – but are blind to well-organised extensive fundraising of small amounts of money (raffles, etc.) that existing parties with well-established branch networks do so well.
This is a wonderful example of the ‘cartel party’ system that Richard S Katz and the late Peter Mair wrote about in a seminal paper published almost twenty years ago (here), a system designed to protect and nest-feather the established cartel of parties while erecting barriers to entry for any likely new parties.
The party cartel is by no means unique to Ireland. But it is skewed more than most to making life difficult for new parties while making life very easy for independents. Certainly we have less new parties than other countries and many more independents. Since 1932 a mere 14 new parties have been elected to the Dáil, most of these surviving for a few parliamentary sessions before disbanding, merging with established parties, or facing electoral annihilation. According to a comparative ranking over time of new parties in West European countries Ireland is consistently placed towards the bottom of the pack (for more, see here).
But we’re top of the pack when it comes to the numbers of independents we elect. Every Dáil since the foundation of the state has had at least one independent TD in its ranks and generally a far greater number (the current Dáil has the largest number since the early 1950s). According to Liam Weeks: ‘there have been 50 percent more independents elected to the Dáil since 1945 than the combined total in the other select democracies using a candidate-centred electoral system’ (see here).
Our political system is an important factor in understanding why Ireland is, yet again, an outlier from international norms.
In the first instance, the electoral system – and especially how its principal features have evolved over time – places independents at an advantage. The use of proportional representation should in principle favour the entry of new parties; however, Ireland’s PR by the single transferable vote (STV) is a candidate centred system that functions just as easily without parties as with them, which gives ambitious individuals a route to a parliamentary career without needing the support of a party apparatus.
It’s not just the fact of STV but also its form that plays some role here. Unlike most other variants of STV in use (see here), in Ireland the candidates are listed on the ballot paper in alphabetical order thus focusing maximum attention on the individual candidate first with party-affiliation second. Add to this the inclusion since 2001 of candidate photographs together with the fact that independent candidates are designated as ‘non-party’ and it is hard to think of an electoral system more suited to the rise of independent politicians.
Our funding regime also has a role to play in several respects. First the rules relating to candidature have been greatly relaxed. In the past all Dáil candidates had to pay a deposit (under certain conditions some still do – amounting to €500 currently), which would only be returned to them providing they exceeded a minimum vote threshold. Under legislative changes in 1991 that threshold was reduced. It was effectively removed as a barrier altogether by a High Court judgment in 2002. Since then non-party candidates need only provide the signatures of 30 constituents. Thus, one of the core determinants of ‘ballot access’ has been greatly eased in recent years making it extremely easy for independent candidates to put themselves forward for election.
An even more significant issue is the imbalance in allocation of state funding of parties as set out so clearly in Joe O’Toole’s article. But one aspect he doesn’t cover is the ‘party leaders’ allowance’, which in 2001, as a quid quo pro for independent support for the government of the day was extended to all independents, so that today each and every independent TD receives an annual party leaders’ allowance of over €41,000 – this despite the fact that they each leads a party of one. While steps are being taken to regulate the use of this allowance more carefully in the future (see here), it is set to continue.
Between our quirky electoral system and our skewed regulation of party funding we have the perfect conditions for independents to flourish while any chance for a new party just withers on the vine.