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.
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.