By Ken Carty University of British Columbia
In a recent post I suggested that the evolution of the party system, and the dynamics of local constituency competition, had deprived Irish voters of any realistic capacity to choose their governments. Recent Dála have been full of politically insecure TDs, many at electoral odds with fellow partisans in their own constituencies. The party system has been slowly disintegrating as party loyalties eroded and the shocks of the last two general elections broke old patterns.
So what do the results of the Sinn Féin surge in the 2020 general election suggest about the current state and future prospects of the patterns of Irish political organization and competition? Worth noting is that the electoral system produced one of its most proportional outcomes ever with the vote and seat shares of the parties more closely matched than anytime since the elections of the volatile 1980s. When many of the Sinn Féin candidates’ victories produced vote surpluses that then transferred elsewhere the result simply deprived the party of the smallish bonus typically enjoyed by Fianna Fáil when it was the largest party.
Perhaps the more significant impact of the party’s success has been to produce a Sinn Féin parliamentary party full of deputies who were easily elected on the basis of their party brand and with a big vote on the first count. Most will probably feel secure and intraparty life relatively harmonious as they struggle to establish themselves as major players in the party system. But as these TDs have running mates imposed, with whom they will share their vote in the next election we may see familiar patterns of intraparty competition and conflict begin to emerge.
As hard measures of that competitiveness and the resulting electoral insecurity it produces for working politicians we can simply count the number of constituencies in which all the TDs had reached the quota by counts end, and by the overall proportion of them who had got to office without ever reaching a quota. In 2020 constituency contests were as vigorously fought as ever and it took an average of nine counts to produce a set of winners. That was one less than in 2016 but still a substantial increase from earlier decades. And when all the constituencies had completed their count not a single one returned a full slate of Deputies who had all reached a quota.
One of the striking features of the new Dáil is its fragmentation. On the measure of fragmentation – ‘effective number of parliamentary parties’ – it is about 5.9, up on 2016, which itself was the highest in the history of the state. The dispersion of political affiliations among the TDs elected in each of the individual constituencies. In the great majority of cases (30 of the 39) the newly elected TDs don’t have a fellow partisan returned from their district. That six of the nine cases in which two members in the same party were returned involved Fianna Fáil TDs is one reminder of the continuing presence of that party on the ground. In only one case (Dublin Rathdown) was a pair of Fine Gael TDs elected, a reflection of just how thin that party is across the country. For both parties any rebuilding of their local organizations will necessarily involve the recruitment of a new cohort of attractive personalities able to attract support. In the past such efforts by the national party leadership has been resisted – sometimes subtlety and unobtrusively, but almost always deliberately and unambiguously – by local TDs anxious to defend their place.
In this new Dáil this instinct is likely to be stronger than ever. Over forty percent of all TDs, that is more than half of the non-Sinn Fein ones, got elected without ever reaching a quota. While the extended counts, with increasing numbers of votes going non-transferable, is part of that story, the cumulative impact seems inevitably to produce a House of the electorally insecure. With so many of the seats left to the vagaries of the count most TDs know they can’t count on enough personal support to ensure their re-election. How they respond to this, and with what consequence for the parties’ organizations, is going to be one of the big challenges of the 33rd Dáil.