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“The Irish Party System appears to be in a state of flux at the moment, but what is uncertain is whether this is a temporary situation or a ‘new normal’”. My opinion is what we have experienced in recent elections will be the ‘new normal’ and that the days of the traditional two and a half party system is well and truly over.
Up the very recent times, the Irish political system has had a traditional two and a half party system. This was made up of Fianna Fail (established in 1926), Fine Gael (established in 1933 after a merger between Cumann na nGaedheal, the National Centre Party & the National Guard) and the Labour Party (established in 1912).
These three parties combined vote has gone above 90% in the majority of the general elections since the creation of the state. With Fianna Fail & Fine Gael averaging over 70% together. There is an argument that the Labour party who had its worst election result in 2016, will bounce back, but it might take them a few more elections to achieve that. The Labour party has the benefit of a brand name and party structure that some of the smaller parties could only wish for. If the Social Democrats do not make inroads in the next general election, you may see a merger with Labour if they both want to gain greater influence in Irish politics. These two center-left parties would have very similar ideologies, so given time they may heal their differences. In relation to Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, both center-right parties, my belief is that the drop in overall support which we have seen in recent times will not be reversed. While support for these parties will fluctuate in any given election, I can’t see a situation that the combined support for Fianna Fail & Fine Gael will get anywhere close to 70% support again. There are many reasons for my theory which I will go into in more detail below.
People’s loyalty to political parties is not as strong as it historically was. For example, Fianna Fail has consistently got between 39% to just over 50% in all general elections between 1932 up to 2011. That support was stable and showed that even through hard times for the party and the country, they still retained a large number of core voters. The same could also be said to a lesser extent about Fine Gael where the support has consistently been between 20% to 39% in every Dail election.
Voters loyalty to political parties has been studied (Michael Walsh, Politics in the RoI Chapter 6). One key factor was the social psychological reasons why voters stick with the same political party. This is where a person typically inherits a party from family members. They develop a strong link to a particular party from a very young age and the political party becomes deeply rooted in their psyche. This is particularly relevant to Fianna Fail and it’s more prevalent in rural areas than urban. However, my belief is that the importance of having a strong family link is waning and its importance hasn’t been helped by the continuous internal migration shift. The percentage of the population living in rural areas has reduced from 68.2% in 1926 to 37.5% in 2016 (CSO Census ).
Irish people’s attitudes have become more liberal. We have seen this initially with the divorce referendum in 1995 and more recently with the same-sex marriage referendum. The country is due to hold a number of referendums within the next few years, including on the 8th amendment. There would be strong resistance among members of Fianna Fail & Fine Gael to any liberalization of the laws of the state, however, the majority of the public would have more liberal views, particularly on abortion (IFPA Abortion in Ireland, 2017 ).
Another factor (Politics in the RoI Chapter 6 table 6.4) shows the voter choice by church practice in 2007. 84% of weekly Catholic church-going voters, voted for either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael. Compared to 63% for Non-Catholic or irregular Catholic church-going voters. In 1926 the percentage of Catholics in the state stood at 92.6% and increased to 94.9% by 1961. However, this has dropped considerably since then and in 2016 stood at 78.3% (CSO Census ). It’s highly likely that this trend will continue for the foreseeable future. This would have implications for the two major parties who voters are by far Catholic (although Fine Gael would be supported by a large number of the citizens from the traditional Protestant religions, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian & Methodist). The average age of persons from these long-established religions (in Ireland) is much older than those persons with no religion or the other non-traditional religions within the state (CSO Census ). As the number of Catholics diminishes within the state, in theory, this should lead to voters to strongly considering other parties.
Another area which to consider is the number of migrants who have arrived in Ireland in recent times. The number of Irish residents who stated that they were non-Irish or born outside the country is now close to 20% of the population (Census 2016  & ). While voter registration is low for non Irish nationals (ERSI 2016 ). There is no guarantee that this will remain low. More than 121,100 persons have applied for Irish Citizenship by naturalization between 2005 and 2015 (ERSI 2016 ). While there appears to be no data on voting intentions by recent immigrants or nationality, this is a huge number of potential voters that would be fairly new to Irish Politics. There is no reason to believe that this cohort of people would favor any of the traditional parties over the various other parties. The name Fianna Fail or Fine Gael would be unknown to most of the “new Irish”. While some might connect with the Green party or Labour due to name recognition, both whom have sister parties in other countries. Other persons may have come from countries with a traditional strong left-wing vote. Parties like Fianna Fail and Fine Gael will have to put a lot of time and effort into convincing this cohort to vote for them, something they may take for granted with those of a white Irish ethnicity.
Across Europe, the days of a single party government are less unheard of. Nearly all EU countries are run by coalition governments, with a few others led by minority governments with the support of independents or smaller parties, like Ireland and the UK. This strengthens the influence that smaller parties have on the electorate. Smaller parties should be able to convince potential voters that they could play a big role in forming the next government. For most of the last century, this wasn’t the case in Ireland. For example, if you didn’t want Fine Gael in Government, your only other alternative was voting Fianna Fail. As a vote for say labour was a vote to have Fine Gael as the senior coalition party in power. In 2016, for the first time, the majority of the electorate voted for other parties other than Fianna Fail or Fine Gael. If this trend continues we could have a situation where these 2 parties could both be on the opposition benches in the Dail within a decade or two.
Another key area is the media. The two biggest and widely circulated newspapers for most of the last century were the Irish Press and the Irish Independent. These two newspapers would have carried huge influence on the general public and in persuading floating voters to back Fianna Fail & Fine Gael. However, a lot has changed since. The first is that the Irish Press ceased publication in 1995 and the Independent Group (behind the Irish Independent) while still conservative, is no longer politically aligned to Fine Gael (Michael Foley, EJC 2012 ). This has weakened the influence of these two parties over the general public, while the huge drop in newspaper circulation hasn’t helped either. The Irish Independent has shown a drop from 152,000 in 2009 to 94,500 in 2017, with the Sunday Independent circulation dropping by nearly 90,000 over the same 8 year period (News Brands Ireland 2017 ).Another area to factor in is the “new media” (digital technologies such as the Internet). This type of media is getting more influential and caters for a huge variety of political views. The younger age groups would use this type of media more frequently than the older age groups. A look at the percentage of Irish residents that have used the internet in the previous 3 month period shows that 96% of 16-29 age cohorts used the internet compared to 52% of persons aged 60-74 (CSO 2016 ). People in the younger age cohorts are less likely to vote for Fianna Fail or Fine Gael compared to the older age cohorts. The combined core vote for Fianna Fail and Fine Gael is 55% in the 55+ age cohort but is only 33% in the under 34 age bracket (Sunday Times / Behaviour & Attitudes 2017 ).
Since the turn of the century, we are seeing a bigger presence in the Dail of smaller parties. There are 8 official parties in the Dail with many of the independents forming alliances for greater speaking rights. Throughout the 20th century, you would struggle to have 4 or 5 political parties represented in the Dail. The other non-traditional parties represented in the Dail are better structured than their predecessors and therefore unlikely to disappear as easily. Sinn Fein (post-1923) have never had a bigger mandate (north or south of Ireland). It has built up its local structures and has a large number of local councillors and 4 MEPs (1 from Northern Ireland). The Green party while losing all its seats in the 2011 general election, has gradually made a comeback winning 2 seats in the 2016 general election. Due to its name recognition and other large Green parties in other countries, it’s highly likely that the Greens will be around for the foreseeable future. The Solidarity–People Before Profit grouping is made up of members of the Socialist Party (AAA) and People Before Profit. There seems to be a willingness of the far left to cooperate with each other, which has led to this alliance. For the 2011 general election, they campaigned under the United Left Alliance (ULA) along with the Workers and Unemployed Action Group. Other left parties like the Workers Party and the Communist Party of Ireland co-operated without being affiliated to the ULA. There is a new political party formed in 2014 called Independents 4 Change, which has 4 TDs. There are also a number of left-wing independent TDs. The potential for greater cooperation among parties of the left may result in one stronger party emerging representing the far left.
Political parties will continue to cease like the Progressive Democrats and some will join other parties like Democratic Left did by joining the Labour party. However, there definitely seems to be a will from the electorate to have a wide range of views and ideologies within Dail Eireann. Since the beginning of the 21s century, the 3 traditional parties have all been punished by the electorate and have suffered their worst election results since the 1940’s (Fianna Fail in 2011, Fine Gael in 2002 & Labour in 2016). This shows that the electorate has at different times become disillusioned with these parties and they aren’t afraid to vote for other parties and independents. My opinion is that while the traditional parties still have a huge role to play in Irish politics, the days of them dominating are well and truly over. This should result in the non-traditional parties having a greater role in Irish politics.
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