JEFF KILDEA. The Irish Elections of 2020

Feb 14, 2020

Perhaps, after almost 100 years, the time has finally arrived when we can declare the Irish Civil War to be over.

Elections in western democracies keep throwing up unexpected results. It has probably ever been thus, but since the Brexit referendum in 2016 voters seem to have taken special delight in confounding the predictions of the political pundits. And, of course, Australian voters followed suit in the federal elections of May 2019.

The latest example comes from Ireland, where from 1932 until the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC), Irish voters tended to elect Fianna Fáil (FF) to government either in its own right or with the support of another party or independents. A notable exception occurred in 1948 when a motley coalition of five parties and twelve independents formed what was unimaginatively known as ‘the inter-Party government’.

That result proved an aberration. In the six decades that followed, FF lost only four elections: one in the 1950s, one in the 1970s, and two in the early 1980s, a turbulent time when three elections were held in less than eighteen months. And, following the GFC, the incumbent FF lost the 2011 elections to its main rival, Fine Gael (FG), which won in a landslide, though it only scraped home in 2016 with the support of independents. On the whole, therefore, Ireland has had a relatively stable election record dominated by FF and to a lesser extent FG.

After more than a decade on from the GFC, one might have expected that the voters at this month’s elections for Dáil Éireann (the 160-seat lower house of the Irish parliament) would have forgiven FF for the economic mess and returned the party to its traditional place on the treasury bench, with FG in second place forming the opposition. But that is not what happened. Instead, the voters turned against both major parties, punishing them with their lowest-ever combined number of seats and lowest-ever combined percentage of votes. In fact, except for the immediate post-GFC elections of 2011, FF has never before polled so badly in terms of seats won and percentage of votes received.

An even bigger loser was the Labour Party, which won only six seats with less than five per cent of the vote. That party, too, has never before done so badly, both in terms of seats and percentage of votes. Unlike in Australia or Britain where labour has been a significant electoral force, in less-industrialised Ireland Labour has never been a customary party of government, except occasionally as a junior member of a coalition with FG. Nevertheless, as recently as 2011, it won 37 seats with almost 20 per cent of the vote, more than FF on both counts.

The big winner, of course, was Sinn Féin, a party that before the GFC polled in single figures in percentage terms as well as in seats – if it was fortunate enough to win a seat at all. This month its 42 candidates won 37 seats to FF’s 38 and FG’s 35 and achieved the highest percentage of first-preference votes cast. Hence the somewhat hyperbolic headlines that have appeared in Ireland and around the world proclaiming an historic election result that has changed the Irish political landscape forever. But is that the case? Or are we witnessing an aberration akin to that of 1948?

I am an historian, not a futurist. It is difficult enough to uncover the past let alone to predict the future. But as the past holds the key to the future, it is worth looking at how the Irish party system has developed in the almost 100 years of the Irish state to try to understand the continuities and the discontinuities that might be factors in its ongoing development.

The first point to note is that, although SF only began to contest elections in the Republic of Ireland from the late 1980s, it traces its origins to 1905. The second point is that both FF and FG emerged from SF in the wake of the Irish Civil War caused when SF split over whether to accept the Anglo-Irish treaty that in 1921 ended the Irish War of Independence and established the Irish Free State the following year.

Prior to the split, SF had been united in its struggle for an Irish republic independent of Britain. Although the treaty conferred independence on the Irish people, it required the Irish Free State to be a dominion of the British Crown and not a republic and its jurisdiction extended to only 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties. The remaining six counties became what is generally referred to as Northern Ireland, which remains a part of the United Kingdom.

So, the three main parties that this month won 110 of the 160 seats in the Dáil are the legacy of the Irish struggle for independence that occurred early in the twentieth century. FG emerged in 1933 as an amalgam of the ten-year-old pro-treaty party Cumann na nGaedheal (CnG) and other groups opposed to FF, which had won the elections of 1932. FF had been established in 1926 by the anti-treaty Éamon de Valera after he decided to seek election to the Dáil rather than to continue the abstentionist policy of SF. At the two elections in 1927 FF won almost as many seats as CnG, and after its victory in 1932 dominated Irish politics for decades. In the meantime, the remnant SF maintained its abstentionist policy until 1986. But it had little electoral success until after the GFC.

While these three parties owe their existence to divisions that occurred concerning the Anglo-Irish treaty, Ireland has changed significantly since the 1920s. In 1937 the FF government introduced a new constitution that made Ireland a republic in all but name, dispensing with ‘Irish Free State’ and taking the name ‘Éire’ in the Irish language or ‘Ireland’ in English. In 1949 the inter-Party government led by FG formally proclaimed Ireland a republic, adopting ‘Republic of Ireland’ as the official description of the state. Like the Cheshire cat, the cause of the split had disappeared.

Significantly, Ireland has transformed from a backward agrarian economy to an advanced ‘knowledge’ economy that post-GFC ranks among the highest in the world in terms of GDP per capita. Both FF and FG are centre-right, liberal conservative parties, while SF espouses a more left-wing, democratic socialist approach. It also more strongly identifies with the unfinished business of a united Ireland. But that issue will be determined ultimately by the people in the north, regardless of politics in the Republic, though a SF government in the south might deter some moderate unionists from switching sides.

While the makeup of the new government is yet to be determined, FF is not discounting a coalition with SF. Yet, given the economic stances of the parties, it might be more logical for FF and FG to join forces in a centre-right government opposed by a centre-left opposition of SF, Labour and other left-leaning parties (or vice versa). But politics and logic do not always go hand in hand. Nevertheless, the GFC may yet prove to have been the catalyst that broke the organic bonds of the Irish party system, thus distinguishing this month’s result from 1948.

Perhaps, after almost 100 years, the time has finally arrived when we can declare the Irish Civil War to be over and for the body politic in Ireland to adopt the party system common to most western democracies based on centre-left and centre-right approaches to managing a modern economy.

(Dr Jeff Kildea is an Adjunct Professor in Irish Studies at the University of New South Wales and held the Keith Cameron Chair of Australian History at University College Dublin in 2014.)

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