JEFF KILDEA. The Irish Elections of 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.)


Dr Jeff Kildea is an Adjunct Professor in Irish Studies at the University of New South Wales and an historian of early 20th-century Australia.

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5 Responses to JEFF KILDEA. The Irish Elections of 2020

  1. Jeff Kildea says:

    Good to hear from you, Michael. The rapid fall from ‘grace’ of the Catholic Church in Ireland reminds me of the story of Icarus. The collapse has been spectacular. By the way, it wasn’t the Australian Catholic Church that shut down CCJP; it was the bishops. On the politics, Frank makes three good points. But I wonder if the rapid rise of SF has magnified its perceived influence. According to Greg Sheridan, who claimed in the Weekend Australian that SF had ‘won’ the election, ‘Every Irishman [sic] should feel ashamed of this result. Every friend of Ireland is grieved. … It’s the most distressful politics that ever yet was seen, and a moment of shame in a long national story.’ Really? Less than a quarter of Irish men and Irish women gave their first preference to SF. Ireland has serious problems in the housing and health sectors. Voters are angry with FG, the governing party, and FF, which kept them in government, for running down services. The 10.7 per cent swing to SF was on the back of a protest vote. Whether it will hold up remains to be seen. Remember the 1998 Queensland elections when One Nation won 22 per cent of the vote. At the next elections it won 8.7 per cent.

  2. Frank O'Shea says:

    This is quite an extraordinary result, one that surprised even SF themselves. Friends I know in Ireland, older certainly, but sensible people I would be able to identify as either left or right in the normal way we use those terms – none of them have a good word for SF and I don’t understand why. Here are possible reasons: 1. SF played the complicated Irish electoral system better than FF/FG. 2. There is a voting generation for whom the bombs and murders of the Troubles are unknown ancient history. 3. Is it possible that FF/FG/Lab are seen as ‘Catholic’ and this is part of the same swing that legalised same-sex and abortion?

  3. Michael Furtado says:

    Jeff’s is a perspicacious and timely analysis of psephological change in Irish voting patterns and their implications. I wonder if he’d like to comment on the evidently corelative changes in Irish politics and which have effectively removed the Catholic Church from its privileged constitutional position. Sinn Fein was no friend of the Catholic Church (and vice versa) and electioneering in the Republic was constantly marred by interference on the part of the Catholic Church in the form of warning voters not to support SF’s socialist/welfarist policies. Of course, Jeff would know this from his own well-known background in the (Australian) Catholic Commission for Justice & Peace, which was forcibly shut down by the Australian Catholic Church some years ago for espousing leftist social policy. Now that the Irish people have finally opted for policies that reflect modernist and socially liberal opinions around the developed world, it would appear that Irish Catholic clericalism, at one and the same time the nationalist saviour of the Irish people, while opposed to all aspects of modernism and social liberalism, is at long last doomed.

  4. Allan Kessing says:

    It is often forgotten, when Irish reunification is discussed, that there is major disquiet in the Republic over the prospect and not just for sectarian reasons.
    Until the new century, living standards in the Six Counties were higher due entirely to the British Exchequer.
    This ceased to be affordable, financially & politically decades ago.

    The Harland-Wolff shipyards, once the largest employer (almost entirely of Protestants) in the Province were an essential part of the “unsinkable aircraft carrier” strategy for NATO during the Cold War.
    Nowadays they employ fewer 100 people making wind turbines.

    Once the Wall fell, the erstwhile purpose of Garrison NI became an expensive irrelevance which London was eagerly seeking to offload onto Dublin
    The Republic, still scarred from the GFC and its treatment by the satraps of the ECB – FF/FG – was, and remains loath to take on a 50% increase in population, almost uniquely low skilled & unused to not being father bedded.

    There was a brief respite post 2017 when PM May called a cynically unnecessary election which nearly lost the Tory party office but thankfully there was found to be a Magic Money Tree to oversubsidise the rump party of a rump province for parliamentary support.

    The Irish Republic neither needs nor wants NI and only urging – and the accompanying lavish funding – from Brussels might alter that view.

  5. R. N. England says:

    If it thought really big, the new Irish government could start talks with the Scottish government on the formation a new republic, the Celtic Republic of Scotland and Ireland (or vice-versa). Boris has already proposed a bridge for them, which they would, no doubt, have to pay for themselves when the news gets out. By reviving their common cultural heritage, and holding hands with each other and with Europe, they could better resist going down the gurgler with the Sassenachs.

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