The puzzle of the February 2016 election result

By Michael Gallagher

In 2011, all the economic indicators had plummeted since the previous election in 2007, and it was no surprise that the government parties lost support heavily: their vote share declined by 29.7 percentage points and their seat total fell by 66 in a 166-member parliament.

In 2016, by contrast, all the economic indicators, as well as subjective measures such as optimism about the country’s and people’s own economic prospects, had risen significantly compared with 2011 (see post by Stephen Quinlan on Yet the government parties’ vote share fell by 23.4 percentage points and they lost 57 seats compared with 2011. So, the puzzle is: why did the electorate punish the FG–Labour coalition almost as brutally as it punished the previous FF–Green–PD coalition despite the huge difference in these governments’ records?


Six possible explanations:

  1. An illusory or uneven recovery? The FG election slogan of ‘Let’s keep the recovery going’ was widely assessed as having been counter-productive. Those who had not felt any recovery were alienated by it (of course, such voters probably weren’t going to vote for FG anyway), and the perception that things were apparently getting better for other people made them feel even worse in relative terms. Perhaps many voters felt that such recovery as there had been was benefiting exclusively or mainly the better off, or those in major urban areas (the ‘two-tier recovery’ was a phrase often used), with the majority of the population unaffected; or that even if there had been a recovery it had started from an unnecessarily low point brought about by government decisions such as refusal to ‘burn the bondholders’? Certainly, according to the RTE exit poll, the number of people who felt that their own financial situation was improving (26%) was well below the proportion who felt that the country’s economic situation was getting better (46%).
  1. An ungrateful / unappreciative electorate? In this perception, the electorate punished the government for failing to meet unrealistic expectations. Maybe many voters still thought of pre-crash living standards as representing normality, unaware or unwilling to accept that these standards were the by-product of an unsustainable bubble, and stood ready to punish any government that did not rapidly reinstate the status quo ante by a combination of tax cuts and spending increases. Such voters are quick to blame the government of the day for anything that goes wrong but slow to give the government credit for any improvement, which instead will always be attributed to factors outside the government’s control. In this line of argument, dissatisfaction and rejection is likely to be the fate of virtually every government unless, like that of 2002–07 in particular, it funds additional spending from an unsustainable bubble of short-term revenue growth.
  1. A good record woefully sold? Maybe the problem lay not so much with the record as with the government parties’ ability to convince the electorate that it was doing a good job. Incidents such as ‘the McNulty affair’; the Minister for Finance’s campaign promise to abolish the USC, a significant source of revenue; the Taoiseach’s reference to ‘whingers’ who did not appreciate the great work done by the government; and FG’s claim that David Cameron was endorsing it; all suggest a misreading of the Irish electorate and produced an election campaign by FG in particular that is widely perceived as one of the worst in living memory. (For more details on these incidents, see the forthcoming How Ireland Voted 2016. The Labour campaign does not bear the same responsibility, because it appears that Labour’s goose was cooked long before the election campaign began.) If a government with what can be seen as a good economic record is rejected by the electorate, perhaps the fault lies not with the voters but in itself?
  1. Greater salience of factors other than the economy? Perhaps the public attached less importance to the economy than to issues such as the state of the health service, crime, abortion, homelessness, water charges, the introduction of the local property tax, cronyism, political reform, and punished the government for perceived poor performance on these? The RTE exit poll shows that ‘health services / hospitals’ shaded ‘management of the economy’ as the top issue in voters’ minds, though only narrowly (20% compared with 18%).
  1. Over-promising by the government parties in 2011? Had the government parties promised to bring about precisely what, in the event, happened, maybe the electorate would have evaluated their record positively. But FG and Labour while in opposition were very critical of the spending cuts and tax increases implemented by the FF-led government between 2008 and 2011 and gave the strong impression that these were unnecessary and would be reversed under their administration. Labour in particular was guilty of such over-promising, having undertaken not to raise university tuition fees and given voters to understand that it would defy any pressure from the ECB to follow policies of fiscal rectitude (‘Labour’s way or Frankfurt’s way’). ‘Broken promises’ was an accusation frequently thrown against both government parties, Labour in particular. Perhaps the campaigns fought by FG and Labour in 2011, while bringing those parties short-term benefit, contained the seeds of their rejection in 2016?
  1. A return to political normality? Both FG and Labour, after their major gains in 2011, returned in 2016 to something not far from ‘normal’ levels of support by the standards of the previous thirty years or longer. Perhaps the 2011 levels of support they reached were an aberration brought about by the collapse of FF support and were never likely to endure? Maybe, just like the economic indicators in the summer of 2008, those political indicators in February 2011 represented an unsustainable bubble that was bound to be followed by a crash, and there is no great mystery about the 2016 result?


8 thoughts on “The puzzle of the February 2016 election result

  1. The real puzzle is the 2002 election – the only time we retunred the outgoing government to power in the 47 years since 1969. We will be paying for the hubris of that government – and the resultant sense of entitlement of our governing elites and those working in the non-traded sectors – for decades.
    This time, anecdotal evidence is that people did not trust promises on the basis “Sure, isn’t that what got us into trouble before?” Does the poll success of the SocDems support this view?
    Early in the campaign, I recall seeing some poll finding that at least 60% of those polled wanted a change of government.

    IMO, it is more your point 6 – a return to the pre-2002 pattern. .
    It may also be a deeper dissatisafaction with our way of governing ourvelves eg. increasing centralisation to centres of power/action that are increasingly seen to be ineffective to the the point of gross and persistent incompetence. The feedback loops are too long. “Incompetent centralisation” now matches “amoral localism”

    As an example, what does it say about the cast of mind of our governors – elected and appointed – that the state closes its only police training facility for 4 years? Surely, any self-respecting democratic state, based on law should continue to recruit police if only to take account of normal retirements etc. Policing is a basis function of governance. What do the governors not understand about that part of the social contgract that underlies modern states?

    I suggest that people are still interested in politics, but find the traditional forms completely unsatisfactory. However, we in Ireland are not unique in this.

  2. Mostly I’d agree with point 6 above. There’s something of a return to more traditional support patterns. However, its composition also seems to also bear some resemblance to the fragmented 1948 Dáil. Whether these new smaller parties will survive long-term is questionable. Since De Valera removed most of the old big constituencies, e.g. the 7-seat Galway one, and created lots of minimum size 3-seater ones, in the run up to that GE, in an effort to (ultimately successfully) neutralize the threat of Clann na Poblachta, it has been a more difficult environment for smaller parties to get off the ground and survive (consequently encouraging more independents as the only viable alternative).

    The continuing gradual rise of Sinn Féin is definitely something new though. The creation of the Northern Assembly means they have a strong neighbouring bulwark of support in the North they can securely venture forth from. Of course, coming from an external stronghold can have downsides too. Their treatment by the often not terribly apolitical state machinery and media down here often seems akin to a body’s immune system’s attempts to eject some foreign object! 🙂 The comically over-the-top hysterical SF commentary from the Indo causes me a chuckle every now and then when I happen to see that paper. I’m not a great fan of Sinn Féin, but my perception of RTE’s general level of hostility to them compared to the some of the other groups did surprise me somewhat (though I guess one can’t forget it is a *state* broadcaster). The timing of the extradition warrant for the senior IRA figure on child abuse matters from Spain was unfortunate. Generally, if an EU body is scheduled to release some report negative of a member state government, it delays its release until after the election (for fear of being labelled as politically interfering in the process). My general hypothesis up to now has been that at least the higher judiciary here seem to be of good quality, apolitical and are often willing to independently rule against the government of the day. The timing of the “Slab” Murphy sentencing for the day just before the election was, I presume, just coincidence. However, IMO it’s better for the legal system not only to actually be above political maneuverings but also to be *seen* to be so. Looking at Sinn Féin support among younger people (circa 25% I think), I’d guess they still have a bit more to rise. I’d expect them to plateau around 20% within another election or two (though things might not be so rosy after they leave the opposition benches and actually finally enter government! 😉 ).

    IMO Fine Gael had a once-off historical opportunity in this Dáil to largely finish off FF as a political force. Their huge seat count last time was won by default, which made them somewhat vulnerable. It wasn’t as if they had gravely warned the electorate of the foolhardiness of FF’s spending plans; they were either silent or even were enthusiastically involved in a pre-election promise bidding wars. However, it has occurred to me that a best of both worlds combination of the reforming zeal of the early W.T. Cosgrave administration allied with the warmer/softer more human FG “Just Society” Declan Costello/Garret Fitzgerald approach could have triggered FF’s terminal decline.

    TBH while I never really expected such a true “democratic revolution” from FG, I did expect some moderate efforts in this direction (some picking of the lower hanging fruit at least). I’m puzzled as to why reform wasn’t pursued more (even if in a quite self-serving way). Was Enda Kenny so confident of being returned as Taoiseach that wanted to avoid any difficulties that such reforms might bring him in a second Dáil with smaller majority? A reform-minded government would have quickly put the Garda whistleblowers controversy to bed; instead it dragged on for months as reform was resisted until finally some kind of Garda Authority was conceded several resignations later.

    There was also a real opportunity for FG to broaden its appeal (Garret Fitzgerald had some success in this direction). They, however, unambitiously seemed very content to just hang onto their core vote. Austerity was needed; however, they implemented it in an overly regressive way (property and water charges with no account of ability to pay, flattish taxes on health insurance, even two €1 flat charges on bottles of wine with minimum pricing to come, up €25 in prescription charges per month on medical cards etc. etc.). The Tory-inspired US tax type system USC cut election promises very much followed in this mould. All very attractive to those on €50k, €60k, €70k and above. All playing to FG’s traditional core base. For someone on the median full-time wage (circa €32k), the attractiveness of this was questionable. With limited fiscal room-to-maneouver (“fiscal space”), if FG made cutting USC a priority, one would have to wonder how this big taxation hole would have been plugged. Not very attractive for someone struggling to afford health insurance for a family and forced to depend on the public health service. Someone on €30k or €40 might justifiably worry if numerous flat taxes/charges would overwhelm any USC cut. Problem is that there just numerically aren’t enough higher earning voters for this limited strategy to broaden FG’s support beyond its traditional demographic.

    This approach would at least have been more understandable if there existed some even more right-wing credible electoral threat breathing down FG’s neck (Renua turned out to be a damp squib however). Broader appeal tax policies would have lost FG very few votes and might have gained them quite a few extra ones.

    FG largely failed in projecting a warm sympathetic image. Its government partners, if anything, dragged this down even further. Prime example would have been Eamon Gilmore’s €100 cut to young people’s dole. He made some comment at the time of the need for them to be weaned off of “flat screen TVs”; though, in effect this was incentivization of emigration (encouraging jobless young people to clear off out of the country). At one stage in the past, Michael Noonan received a pie in the face from a protestor, laughed it off, and it was soon forgotten about. In contrast, Joan Burton’s relentless pursuit through the courts of the protestors who surrounded her car just seemed petty and counterproductive.

    Finally, the whole Irish Water debacle brought all of these themes together, uniting them in one giant long-running saga, constantly reminding voters of many of same these points: lack of reform/inefficiency/quangoes, huge overheads and consultant fees, fears of future privatization (perhaps by some oligarch), unsympathetic handling and pursuit of “sinister” protest elements through the courts, flat regressive charges/taxes, and in general made the government seem incompetent.

    IMO a genuinely reforming FG party implementing austerity in a fairer more sympathetic way (with a nod towards its old “Just Society” wing) could have replaced FF as the new default catch-all big Irish political party. Even moderate efforts in these directions might well have tempered Labour’s decline and returned the coalition to power with a reduced majority. Instead, we got very little fairness or reform in the past Dáil. A good crisis (and once-off opportunity for FG) was largely squandered I think (and FF is most definitely on the up and up again). Anyway, apologies for the excessive length of this comment! 🙂

    • Finbar,
      There are several points worth discussing here,but just to pick up on one point that is glaringly incorrect i.e. your designation of Joan Burton’s so-called ‘pursuit’ through the courts of those who surrounded her car in Jobstown as ‘petty’ or ‘counterproductive’ or whatever.

      Please note that:
      1. the prosecution was initiated by the gardai, on foot of their review of extensive evidence relating to events on that day;
      2. the application to bring a case was approved by the prosecutions’ service; and
      3. the decision as to whether any laws had been broken, or whether grounds existed for the prosecution of any criminal case through the courts, had nothing to do with any third party interests, political or otherwise.

    • @Veronica
      My language was rather provocative and I’d agree inaccurate (certainly anyway with regards to your points 2 and 3). Prior to the 1970’s when the Attorney General was still in charge of prosecutions, I might have argued my case with you on point 2. However, officially, prosecution and justice are now independent of government. Mechanisms exist whose purpose is to protect such independence. It’s an imperfect world, of course, and those holding such positions often have political affiliations and pedigrees and are appointed by politicians. The ideal of independence is not always fully attained in practice, but they do seem to function independently for the most part, so I won’t seriously argue points 2 and 3 with you.

      However, IMO matters are less clear-cut for point 1. The doctrine of “operational independence” for the police is far less well developed here than in the UK. I guess this type of convention arose and developed in many countries as a kind of truce between major political parties. If government parties venture down the road of using the police or state media in a markedly politically partisan way, then they obviously leave themselves wide open to the very same treatment if they later lose power (so best not a route gone down). Though, I guess such political considerations might not appear quite so relevant towards any hypothetical groups with minor political representation, which are viewed by government parties as a sinister fringe, and are unlikely to ever get within an ass’s roar of actually holding any power.

      Anyway, our own police force is relatively more politicized, e.g. senior appointments and promotions have needed government approval. Recent controversies, in part perhaps stemming from too close a relationship between a minister and a commissioner, did corner the government into creating an embryonic Garda Authority, which may in the future increase independence and provide a measure of political insulation (though that very much remains to be seen; the body seems quite weak in several respects). A few years back, I remember that some bank official always seemed to be charged or hauled in for questioning just around the time some huge new bondholder or similar payment was being made (I always thought that these were rather amazing coincidences, but these things sometimes just do happen I guess! 🙂 ). The media also seemed to have a hotline to someone in the know in the Jobstown case, e.g. they knew about the charges even before Paul Murphy and others did so themselves!

      And you are right on point 1 too in the sense that, yes, the Gardaí did indeed initiate the prosecution (investigating and then bringing charges to the DPP). The question as to why the Gardaí initiated the investigation and charges in the first place, though, is a more interesting one. Perhaps those decisions were made purely on the basis of the evidence and political considerations did not enter into the equation at all (or perhaps they did). If the government had strongly wanted the Jobstown incident to be quickly forgotten and made such feelings known, one wonders whether any of this would have ever made it to the courts. I don’t know for certain the answer to that, of course. I can say, though, that, in general, I don’t believe that our police force’s independence is, even now, adequately protected.

      • Hi Finbar,

        Look at it this way: the entire incident was a major embarrassment to the police and a challenge to the authority of the Gardai Siochana to protect citizens, whoever they may be, going about their lawful business.

        First, it’s unheard of in any society that purports to call itself a functioning democracy that anyone, and that includes senior members of the government or other public officials, could be detained in a public place by an unauthorised crowd for longer than two hours. Second, as the gardai attempting to protect the car, and those within it, turned inwards rather than outwards, some were allegedly themselves subjected to assault from behind, and certain items of equipment were removed from their waistbands e.g. pepper spray. Such items, it was later reported, were subsequently turned to other uses by persons who acquired them.

        I would agree with you that the political logic suggests that letting all this pass might appear to be in the best interests of any politician directly involved. However, in all the circumstances, that option was not available. And rightly so!

      • @Veronica
        You say “that option was not available”. I’d wonder if that actually was true (supposedly/officially yes, but was it in reality?).

        The Jobstown incident has been spun in different ways by both sides. It falls into something of a grey area I think. IIRC it’s going to the circuit court and so to be heard by a jury, which is IMO the most appropriate arbiter in these circumstances. Perhaps some kind of line was crossed and this should be criminalized (I’m not so sure). One side is claiming frightening threatening physical violence (“false imprisonment” etc.). The other is claiming this was all a perfectly legitimate purely peaceful protest. There certainly seems to have been rather hostile heckling and jostling. The car was blockaded for more than two hours. The minister was hit by a water balloon. Perhaps some protestors took things a little further than that (as you say). Road blockades do sometimes get used in other protests around the world. Over two hours does seem pretty excessive. Where does one draw the line though? Would 30 mins be acceptable? The bar for what technically constitutes false imprisonment may be quite low (though no doubt a pie in the face would also constitute assault). A whole bunch of Gardaí were with the minister so I don’t think she was realistically in any imminent danger. There’s a legitimate counterbalancing right to protest also. One could also view such protests as an attack on the dignity of the office itself. Though, such arguments might hold more traction in other countries. The US public attitude to their President or the UK’s attitude to their Queen would probably brook very little tolerance for this kind of thing, but probably not so such for just ministers and MPs in the UK, and probably even less here (we tend to feel and probably are closer to our TDs than these countries for better or worse). Deciding on where to draw the line in these situations is a tricky one. No doubt there will be plenty of footage from phone cameras and the like. A jury trial on this is probably the way the go (presuming the judge involved doesn’t hand down hugely constraining directives to them).

  3. @ Finbar,

    The political protagonists on either side of this can ‘spin’ their respective interpretations to the media like whirling dervishes until they all fall down in a heap, but they are missing the point: for all our sakes the issue of whether or not a criminal offence was committed in the course of the events of any particular protest must be adjudicated in a court of law, not the court of public opinion. The case is not about the ‘right to protest’.Political protest is an entirely legitimate activity and and an essential function of democracy in the exercise of free speech and expression of opinion.We have a fundamental right to engage in civil protest. But it does not confer a licence to wilfully commit any offence against another person, in word or deed, nor immunity from prosecution if such actions are deliberately undertaken. Why have a justice system at all, if self-styled ‘peaceful protesters’ cannot be held to account if they infringe the basic human rights of others against whose political actions they claim to be protesting? It’s a nonsense which serves only to discredit, undermine, and make a mockery of the underlying democratic values of public protest. Further, it deters citizens from coming out to protest against policies they find unnacceptable once they realise the only purpose assigned to their protest is to act as a pawn in serving the political interests of anti-democratic self-appointed ‘leaders’.

    • @Veronica
      OK, your feelings on this incident seem very clear. You hold a very valid and legitimate view! However, personally, I don’t think things are quite that straightforward. Juries can and sometimes do take other things into account. An example of this that comes to mind is the case of the “Pitstop Ploughshares” from a decade or so ago: . That was not a case of peaceful protest. Five people crept into Shannon and did over $2 million damage to a US military transport plane on its way to Iraq with lump-hammers and axes. Seemingly a cut-and-dried case of simple criminal damage. However, a jury eventually unanimously acquitted them (after two previous mistrials) “as they were acting to save lives and property in Iraq and Ireland, and that their disarmament action was reasonable, taking into consideration all the circumstances.” The third time (unlike pre-trial rulings to the earlier collapsed cases) the judge permitted the defence of “lawful excuse” which helped their case (though, seemingly, conversations with members of the second jury, who never even got to hear the defence, indicated they were very inclined to acquit them also).

      And I’m definitely not equating both cases. The earlier case at least had the motivating justification that they were acting to save lives in Iraq. Jobstown centred on the decidedly much less heroic matter of water charges. If I was on the jury of the “Pitstop Ploughshares”, I think I would definitely have voted to acquit them. I’m not at all sure about the Jobstown case. There seemed to be a nasty distasteful vibe to the protest. Certainly, if this became a regular pattern, I’d feel that such protest behaviour should be clamped down on. If I was on the Jobstown jury, I’m honestly not sure which way I’d fall (would be open to hearing the arguments made and viewing footage of the protest). Having someone confined to a car for 2 or so hours would not, in and of itself, be cause enough for me to convict of anything (to put things in perspective, people can be trapped in cars for longer during bad traffic jams). Would depend on the entire surrounding circumstances of the event, of which I’m not sufficiently familiar.

      Maybe we’ll agree to disagree on this! 🙂

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