Dr. Mel Farrell, 3 December 2014
The Great Depression helped create the party system that dominated Irish politics for eighty years, the Great Recession may be about to force a new way in Irish politics.
After the 2011 general election, what newly elected Taoiseach Enda Kenny described as a ‘Democratic Revolution’, shook the foundations of Ireland’s political system. Fianna Fáil, a party that had never dropped below 39% of the first preference vote between 1932 and 2007, was decimated at the polls, dropping to 17% and a mere twenty Dáil seats. This represented a fall of 24% from the 41% Fianna Fáil secured at the 2007 general election. Of course, when one factors in the Green Party (-2.9%), and the Progressive Democrats (-2.7%, party dissolved in 2009), one can see that the outgoing government lost a combined 29% of the first preference vote. It was an electoral earthquake with no precedent since the foundation of the state in 1922 and comparable only to the Irish Parliamentary Party’s collapse in December 1918.
During its years of political dominance, Fianna Fáil had always been a ‘catch-all’, cross-class party that attracted support from across the social strata. As such, it is too simplistic to interpret traditional Fianna Fáil as a conservative, centre-right party little different from its main rival Fine Gael. In the late 1920s, Fianna Fáil developed radical socio-economic policies that allowed it expand beyond the confines of its anti-Treaty base. It gained support in the western constituencies and, crucially, and working class parts of Dublin and the other cities. This component of its support left a deep impression on Fianna Fáil’s identity. It could claim, with some justification, to be the party of the ‘have nots’ and Ireland’s ‘real Labour Party’. Remember when Bertie Ahern described himself as a Socialist? It’s difficult to imagine a Fine Gael leader coming out with such a statement, the Just Society wing of the party notwithstanding. Merger or coalition between the two main parties was always considered unthinkable, firstly because of the deep animosity between the two parties and secondly because such a coalition was guaranteed to represent between 65%- 85% of all voters. It was believed that such a ‘grand-coalition’ would be bad for democracy given that it would be almost impossible to dislodge it at the polls.
However, the collapse of Fianna Fáil during what some term the ‘Great Recession’ has resulted in political convulsions that show little evidence of abating. Recent polls show that the current Fine Gael/Labour coalition is under serious pressure, with each party down between 10-12% o their 2011 figures. If we imagine, for a moment, that Fianna Fáil’s pre-2011 support was like the layers of an onion, we can see that Fine Gael gained a segment of its support in 2011 (+8.8%). This, more than likely, was part of Fianna Fáil’s centre-right/middle-class support. Next, we see that Labour gained another layer of Fianna Fáil’s support (+9.3%). This would appear to be the public sector/centre left element within Fianna Fáil’s traditional support base, identifying with the party’s development of socially orientated policies in the late 1920s rather than its opposition to the Treaty of 1921. Its adoption of radical social and economic policies in the late 1920s transformed Fianna Fáil from a party that had a glass-ceiling on its support to one that could command a majority of votes in the Free State. By offering voters workable policies in the late 1920s, Fianna Fáil moved beyond the abstract idealism of its anti-Treaty stance. In 1923 the anti-Treaty vote came to 290,000 while Fianna Fáil won 299,000 votes in June 1927. By 1932 Fianna Fáil had been in the Dáil for over four years and attracted a remarkable 566,000 first preference votes.
So far we have accounted for the 18% Fianna Fáil lost to the incoming Fine Gael/Labour coalition at the 2011 general election. The other beneficiaries of Fianna Fáil’s 2011 collapse were Sinn Féin (+3%), various independents and the various parties that make up the anti-austerity alliance (AAA). These groups might be considered, ‘radical’, ‘socialist’, and ‘republican’ and were able to gain Fianna Fáil votes that would never go to either Fine Gael or Labour. Sinn Féin, therefore, was able to gain a republican vote from Fianna Fáil at a time when the Cowen government had just entered into an EU/IMF bailout, while the left wing parties attracted working-class votes that Labour was unable to win. Sinn Féin and the AAA were therefore able to cater to the needs of disillusioned elements within the Fianna Fáil electorate, gaining votes that incoming coalition parties were unable to pick up.
2014 Local Elections
Three tough budgets later and it is now the current coalition that is suffering in the polls. Three years after they each had their best ever general election, Fine Gael and Labour took a battering in the May 2014 Local Elections. However, Fianna Fáil was unable to benefit greatly, though it did regain most of the support it had lost to Fine Gael. It would appear as though the vote that Fine Gael gained directly from Fianna Fáil/PDs deserted it and migrated back to Fianna Fáil. In the locals, Fianna Fáil improved its vote by 8% on its 2011 general election showing while Fine Gael dropped by 12% (losing additional votes to independents and others). However, Fianna Fáil was not able to feast so happily on the collapse of the Labour Party vote and this is what demonstrates most accurately the political realignment that seems to be taking place within the wider electorate. Labour’s vote also dropped by 12% to 7%, down even on the 10% it won at both the 2002 and 2007 General Elections. Like Fine Gael, Labour lost more votes than it had gained as a result of Fianna Fáil’s collapse at the 2011 General Election. However, this vote did not float back to Fianna Fáil. Instead it migrated further left. Sinn Féin gained 6% on its General Election showing, while an assortment of independents gained 12% to 23% of the total first preference vote. Other left wing groups also recorded gains.
As a result, it appears as though Fianna Fáil has lost its radical, working-class support for good and that the main beneficiaries of this are Sinn Féin and what we may call the parties representing the AAA. Recent by-elections and opinion polls confirm the trend: Sinn Féin and the AAA are capitalising on the current government’s loss of support and not Fianna Fáil. The surge in support for the radical left, is a more recent development and demonstrates the effect of the water charge protests. Labour and Fianna Fáil are not the only parties at risk of being outflanked, even Sinn Féin is beginning to struggle and faces a dilemma about how to position itself in relation to the parties that are advocating more radical action.
In this new political landscape Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael seem to be now competing, exclusively, for middle class votes. It would appear that changes within the electorate are in fact in the process of facilitating an eventual coalition of the two parties. The effect on Fianna Fáil is that it now, more closely than ever before, resembles the traditional make-up of Fine Gael. In spite of Micheál Martin’s best efforts to anchor Fianna Fáil in the centre-left, the electorate seems to have decided that the two parties occupy the centre-right. Fianna Fáil’s loss of republican and working class support means that it is no longer the catch-all, broadly based movement it once was. When the total share of the vote won by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael at the 2014 Local Elections is combined, the two parties accounted for just under half of all votes cast. Add Labour and the traditional ‘two and a half parties’ won just 56% of the vote. In recent polls, the three established parties combined were under 50%. However, no one party or group of parties is currently standing out in the polls. Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin are all polling around the 18-26% range, no ‘government-in-waiting’ would appear to be gathering momentum which suggests that the next election is still wide open.
Next election, a Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil government?
As things stand, it is the people currently voting for independents who will probably decide the outcome of the next election as no combination of parties currently stands out as likely to win a workable majority. If the vote for independents/others comes in at 30% at the next election it is hard to look beyond a hung Dáil, a second election, and a period of political instability similar to that experienced in the early 1980s. It may not even be possible to form a government after the next election. Fresh elections would likely work against the smaller parties and could present an opportunity for the mainstream parties to rally and re-establish their dominance in a democracy they have nurtured since 1922.
On the other hand, should the momentum currently behind the Socialist candidates carry into the next election it is difficult to look beyond the formation of the first Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil coalition government. This scenario would reflect the reality that Fianna Fáil’s days of being a ‘catch all’ party are over and that the middle class now appears to be looking to it and Fine Gael as their bulwark against the left and Sinn Féin. Fianna Fáil’s loss of its ‘catch all’ qualities means that it is now closer to Fine Gael than ever before in terms of the make-up of its support and also its political identity. Of course, each party would be reluctant to enter such a coalition: whichever of the two went into coalition as the junior partner would face almost certain dissolution, sinking its identity in the larger of the two. However, in the event of a new party emerging, each of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil would be strong enough, like the old Irish Party, to leave much of their character on the new dispensation. Such a scenario would potentially allow the Labour Party to go into opposition and possibly renew itself as a moderate party of the left. In that scenario, the party could position itself as a moderate leadership for any future left or centre-left coalition. Labour still has a better organisation than groups further to its left and should win somewhere in the region of 10-15 seats at the next election, even if it polls under 10%.
Of course, a lot can still change before the next election. Indeed, the current government probably still has one more life left before it wanders past the point of no-return. An improving economy, another non-austerity budget and an end to unforced errors may be enough to secure a slender Fine Gael/Labour majority on a good day for the coalition in 2016. Such an outcome would see Fianna Fáil continue to lead the opposition and more than likely lead the following government. However, as things stand, a more fundamental realignment of Irish politics looks the most likely option with centre-right leadership on one side and centre-left on the other. However, for such a system to work, the wider Irish left, notorious for the deep divisions within it, will simply have to co-operate and learn to compromise if workable policy programmes are to be developed. In the event of a Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil government, the parties of the AAA would be wise not to shun the Labour Party given the potential for a centre-left alternative to any Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil coalition. The Great Depression helped create the party system that dominated Irish politics for eighty years, the Great Recession may be about to force a new way in Irish politics.