Political Legitimacy in Ireland During Economic Crisis: Insights from the European Social Survey


Posted on behalf of Dr Siobhan O’Sullivan, School of Applied Social Studies University College Cork, Dr Amy Healy, NUI Maynooth, and Prof Michael Breen, Faculty of Arts, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick.

This blog presents the arguments from a paper published in Irish Political Studies by the authors. Free access to the paper is available for the month of March at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/07907184.2014.942645#abstract

The impact of the 2008 recession on political legitimacy in Ireland is still being felt. The collapse of the banking, construction and property sectors, and the 2010 EU/International Monetary Fund loan and attached austerity conditions resulted in a dramatic election in 2011. Support for Fianna Fáil, the party that had dominated political power in Ireland for decades, was decimated and Fine Gael and Labour subsequently formed a coalition government. The next general election will be held in 2016 and in the intervening years there has been widespread protest over austerity, cutbacks, and new taxes and charges.

Political legitimacy refers to the rightful exercise of political power. There are many theories regarding what makes governments and political authorities legitimate, including that they must attain and exercise power through the consent of the population and in accordance with laws and shared beliefs about what the government should deliver. Legitimacy is seen as crucial to political stability since it involves people’s acceptance of government decisions, for example, that they are fair, efficient, accountable and competent.
Legitimacy is of course not a guaranteed feature of political authority and can increase or diminish over time. It is long recognised that economic issues can particularly affect legitimacy in that voters hold governments responsible for economic conditions, including in the complex context of globalisation. Hence, sustained economic development results in mass support for the political system and conversely economic recession leads to legitimacy deficits or loss.

Legitimacy can be assessed from two standpoints: 1) the decisions and actions of political authorities and institutions; 2) the attitudes, beliefs and behaviours of the citizenry towards political authorities and institutions. It is the second level that our research addressed, namely public attitudes to Irish political authorities, by drawing on data from the European Social Survey (ESS) over a ten-year period, 2002–2012. The ESS is a multi-national survey that began in 2002 and has been repeated every two years subsequent to that date.

Since legitimacy is a complex concept, we broke it down into a number of parts. We firstly examined political trust (in parliament, political parties and politicians), which has been defined as the key foundation of legitimacy. This is because people must trust that political authorities are honest and not corrupt and that they will deliver on their promises and electoral mandate. We secondly assessed levels of satisfaction with government performance and outcomes, across a number of indicators including the economy, health and education. This has also been deemed important to legitimacy because people are more likely to support the political system if they benefit from economic development and the provision of social services. We thirdly conducted analysis regarding social trust, which some consider to be important to political legitimacy because interpersonal trust is seen as a pre-requisite for political trust.

We found unsurprisingly that since the economic crisis of 2008, there was an overall decrease in political trust. This was accompanied by a steeper decline in satisfaction with government, influenced by a dramatic drop in satisfaction with the economy. Interestingly, social trust appears to be quite stable across the years we examine which may mean that it is more resistant to breakdown despite significant economic and political change. This supports researchers who argue that social trust is not related to political trust or political legitimacy.

Image political legitimacy

Following the 2011 election, overall satisfaction with government increased, despite no rise in satisfaction with the economy. This is because the electoral turnover resulted in higher levels of satisfaction with democracy and the national government. There was however little variation across the Celtic Tiger and post-Celtic Tiger years in terms of satisfaction with health and education, with people far more satisfied with education than health services over time indicating the on-going controversy over the health system in Ireland. Another interesting finding was that even though satisfaction with government had risen after the election, political trust continued to decline. This supports other European research that finds that the economic crisis in the Eurozone is associated with a significant loss in citizens’ trust in political authorities in Ireland, Spain, Portugal, and Greece.

Our research supports but also adds nuance to the thesis that economic development or collapse is crucial to political legitimacy. While the economic recession has had a major impact, we show that there are other aspects important to political legitimacy in Ireland. This research could be developed further, particularly since it only included the first year in power of the Fine Gael/Labour coalition government but assessed data for three rounds where Fianna Fáil was in government. It will be interesting to return to the ESS to incorporate later rounds and further assess political trust, satisfaction with government, and social trust, particularly as signs of tentative economic recovery emerge and the 2016 elections approach.

5 thoughts on “Political Legitimacy in Ireland During Economic Crisis: Insights from the European Social Survey

  1. This appears to be a competently done bit of research, but I’m not sure it adds anything much to the sum total of human knowledge. And I’m less sure it tells us anything about political legitimacy. Looking at changes in political trust, satisfaction with the government and social trust provide some context, but they don’t really impact on political legitimacy. To their great credit, the vast majority of Irish citizens have long accepted the legitimacy of a properly elected government to govern while it retains the confidence of the Dáil and chooses to remain in office up to the Constitutional time limit. At various times many citizens (even a majority of citizens) may be resolved to eject a government at the next time of asking – and this seems to be the case for this government for some time – but relatively few citizens actively oppose the implementation of specific government decisions and question the legitimacy of government when it seeks to ensure the implementation of these decisions.

    However, the water charge protests last year – in particular those of 1 November – queried the democratic legitimacy of what the government was compelling the so-called independent economic regulator to implement. And, even though its response was panicked – and generated probably the worst possible outcome in terms of economic effiiciency, policy effectiveness and resource conservation – the government, to its credit, did respond to a significant withdrawal of public consent to what it wanted to do. In over 100 years of economic regulation being used increasingly in the advanced economies this is probably the first rejection by the public of a decision by an economic regulator supposedly discharging a statutory duty to protect the interests of water service users. It raises major questions about the legitimacy of economic regulation in the energy sector (as the European Commission pointed out in its second post-programme surveillance report last month). And the Minister for Transport, under under pressures, has thrown economic regulation of the aviation sector in to uncertainty and disarray.

    The ultimate irony is that the one thing that unites the government and its various agencies, on one side, and those who vehemently oppose water charges, on the other, is an over-riding determination to conceal and deny the pandering to special interest groups at the expense of the majority of ordinary citizens. It is this pandering which incensed so many citizens. Irish Water was established in Bord Gais (now Ervia) with a full and free transfer of existing water system assets at enormous and excessive expense to compensate the management, staff and unions of Bord gais for the sale of their non-network businesses. And a 12-year Service Level Agreement was put in place to maintain an army of under-employed local authority water sector workers.

    • What has happened is beyond corruption and as Pat Rabbitte said when condemning demands for a constitutional guarantee, that our water resources, now vested in a HSE type quango, would not be sold off.. ” you never know what will happen down the line”. In other words we may need to flog it! That’s right Pat you never know what might happen, that pension could disappear!

      This government have done more to damage the pretence of democracy in this country than FF ever did. What is going to happen next? Well, Labour are going to go the same way as the Green Party and the Dodo. FF will tell us they do not want to go into government with FG but then they will tell us they ‘have’ to, for the “national good”! Combined they will not even command a majority so junior ministeries are going to be given out like lollipops, until they have enough “independents” to form a majority. SF will sit back and wait for the next election. Then, they will wipe the slate clean of both FF and FG. Property tax and water charges days are numbered as SF have both of them in their gun sights. It is pointless paying either of these two taxes as eventually they will be repealed and holdouts will be “forgiven”. A new quango with a constitutional guarantee, not to be sold off, will be formed to manage water, it will be funded from central government as it always was and indeed still is.

      • @Anonymous,

        I’m not sure why you prefer to be anonymous because it appears there is considerable popular support for the politically incoherent and economically illiterate views you express. It is not surprising that the webs of lies, half-truths and fictions being spun by the mainstream parties are provoking a growing popular revulsion, but one would hope this would encourage citizens to seek out and support those politicians who might speak directly and honestly to them. However, sadly, many citizens appear to have become ensnared in the alternative web of lies, half-truths and fictions being spun by SF and the various so-called left-wing factions.

        On the other hand, there is strong evidence that a considerable number of citizens is prepared to support politicians who nominally are ‘independent’ but come from the FF/FG gene-pool though they no longer are formally affiliated with these parties – and advance their separation from these parties as a strong selling point. (It could be contended that these voters are rejecting the excessive use of the party whip by the mainstream parties – and prefer deputies who are more directly accountable to them between elections.)

        In this context, I believe assertions about a perceived decline in political legitimacy in Ireland are misleading. For quite some time the polling evidence suggests that FG will lose quite a few seats, that Labour will get a thorough and well-deserved electoral kicking, that FF will make some gains (but nothing like it would desire) and that SF and the various left0wing factions will increase their represenation. The most likely outcome is a reduced FG in coalition with a rump Labour party supported by whatever handfuls of ‘independents’ Deputies Creighton and Ross can muster. I have no views about whether this is good, bad or indifferent, but if this transpires it will reflect the will of the people. It will have democratic and political legitimacy and will certainly be accepted as having such legitimacy by FF. But it will rapdily lose its legitimacy if instead of dealing directly and honestly with citizens, providing competent sensible government and curtiailing the power of the influential spcial interest groups, the governing politicians continue to spin variations of the webs of lies, half-truths and fictions that are being spun currently. That road leads to the aacendancy of the dangerously populist and the deluded.

  2. The way I feel now is that for 80 odd years we have trusted the mainstream parties to run the country for us. Sadly, they have abused that trust and in doing so they have destroyed the country. I for one will use my vote to bring about a radical change because I believe that is what the country needs now. So I will be voting for Sinn Fein and Independents.
    This present Govt seem to think its acceptable to ruin lives and implement policies that are literally killing people in its pursuit of a particular ideology. Trickle Down economics didn’t work in America in the 1980s and it won’t work here now in the second decade of the 21st century.
    To be frank I hope both Labour and Fine Gael meet their Waterloo at the next GE. Their policies have done too much damage to real people taking so much from them that they have left good, honest, hard-working and decent people without dignity or hope.

  3. Pingback: Who do you trust and why does it matter? – Brian M. Lucey

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s