Ireland (the Republic of) – EU Parliamentary Elections

Political Background

Initially an EFTA member, Ireland joined the EU as part of the first expansion along with the UK (with whom most of its trade was then with) and Denmark.

The victim of 800 years of colonialism, repeated invasion, and repression from English, and, subsequently, British Kings, Queens and governments an Irish nationalist movement began in earnest in the 19th century.

The Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), founded in 1882, became the dominant party in Ireland, arguing for devolved Home Rule. Home Rule also began the official policy of the British Liberal party and the party’s legendary leader and Prime Minister, William Gladstone, but Conservative opposition and splinters within his own party over the issue meant he was never able to enact it. This became the dominant political question near the end of the 19th century.

A Home Rule Act was finally passed in 1914, but was not enacted due to the outbreak of World War I. Tensions were only increased by WWI, and with the Easter Rising of 1916, a failed militant attempt to establish independence for Ireland, violence increased.

After WWI, the IPP was reduced to a rump of three seats as a much more radical party, Sinn Fein, swept across the majority of Ireland winning 75% of its seats. Sinn Fein was seen as the ‘party of the rising’, and the party of Irish republicanism, a more hard-line variant of Irish nationalism.

Sinn Fein refused to sit in the British parliament and instead issued a unilateral declaration of independence and formed a new legislature, the Dail.

From 1919 to 1921 the Irish Republican Army, the army of the self-declared Irish government fought a guerrilla war against British armed forces in the Irish War of Independence, ending with the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. The Treaty was deeply controversial, because it partitioned Ireland into a Southern Free State of 26 counties, and a Northern Province of the UK of 6 counties (which had a unionist majority due to years of colonisation by Britain).

Sinn Fein subsequently split into a pro-treaty side which became Fine Gael, and the anti-treaty side, which became Fianna Fail. This has given Ireland possibly the most unique party system in Europe, with the divide between the largest two parties not on class, or religious lines. It is difficult to say which of the two is more left-wing or right-wing quite often. Instead the civil war cleavage defined Irish politics.

For a variety of reasons, Irish politics is extremely personalist, aided by the electoral system which gives voters a great amount of power over which candidates get elected. Politics is very dynastic in Ireland as well, see the length of the Wikipedia article ‘Families in the Oireactas’ for a demonstration of just how so. The Lenihan family, for instance, has had five separate members serve in the Irish parliament.

Politics is also very constituency focused which can sometimes leave parties looking more like disjointed collections of independents than politically coherent blocs. Politics has also, historically, tended to be very service-based as a result.

The debate over Northern Ireland has also long been a key issue, with many Irish nationalists long desiring a United Ireland. The repression of a Northern Irish civil rights movement in the 1960s by the British authorities led to a campaign of terror by the Provisional IRA which only ended in the 1990s through the Belfast Agreement of 1998. The Republic approved the Agreement in a referendum with 94.4% in favour, with the North approving it simultaneously with 71.1% in favour.

Peace in Northern Ireland has also given the Republic some limited say over Northern Ireland’s government and created a few joint all-Ireland institutions to come to joint decisions in areas like tourism which effect the whole island.

Fianna Fail has been Ireland’s dominant party by far. Between 1932 and 2011, Fianna Fail was the largest party in every single national election. In this period it governed Ireland for 61 of 79 years. Perhaps only Sweden’s Social Democrats can be said to have been more electorally dominant throughout in Europe during this period.

Fianna Fail’s utter dominance and lack of discernable ideology brought with it talented, charismatic politicians who sometimes turned out to be very corrupt. The former Taoisearch (Prime Minister) Charles Haughey is particularly notorious for a series of scandals, including political (such as phone tapping journalists, or illegally importing arms for the Provisional IRA), and financial (bribery, embezzlement). While Haughey is the most extreme case, he is an illustrative example of Fianna Fail’s worst side. Similarly, Haughey’s eventual successor as Taoisearch, Bertie Ahern, was forced to resign due to a financial scandal in 2008.

Ireland never really experienced mass-industrialisation, except for in the British-held North and was one of Europe’s poorest countries for most of the 20th century, but the country began to benefit from the new service based economy in the 1960s and 1970s, essentially managing to skip industrialisation altogether. By the 1990s the Irish economy was booming, and between 1995 and 2000 the Irish economy grew by, on average, 9.4% a year. It grew by 5.9% a year after that until 2008.

However, from 2004 onwards the boom had essentially become reliant on a major property bubble, based on an overabundance of property which was massively overvalued. The bubble inevitably burst in 2008. House prices are now 56% down from peak in Dublin, mortgage approvals have dropped to 1971 levels. In December 2012 28% of Irish mortgages were in arrears or been restructured.

This led to an immense level of risk for Ireland’s banks with the risk that the entire financial sector could collapse. As such the Fianna Fail-led government issued a bank guarantee in September 2008 to protect the deposits of Irish consumers and companies. By September 2010, Irish help for the banks had risen to 32% of GDP as a result and so the Irish government negotiated a bailout with the EU and IMF.

Ireland has been engaging in massive austerity since 2008. The 2009 budget was particularly controversial, with major tax rises and state funding cuts announced.  Among the most controversial aspects were the end of free healthcare for the over 70s, the end of a programme to vaccinate pre-teen girls against cervical cancer, a proposal to reinstate university fees, and huge cuts to social welfare. A later emergency budget, the second in six months, increased taxes and cut spending further.

In 2011, Fianna Fail experienced the worst defeat for a governing party in Irish history, losing around 60% of its support and losing almost three quarters of its seats.

The new Fine Gael-Labour government has largely continued the austerity programme. This has been tough but is now providing dividends. Ireland has experienced positive, albeit sluggish, growth since 2011. Growth is projected at 2% for this year, however, and 3.2% for 2015. After hitting a high of 14.8%, unemployment is now down to 11.8%. Ireland has been hailed as something of a success story amongst the debt-ridden states of Europe.

In addition to dealing with the economy, the coalition government has set up a constitutional convention to deal with some of the political defects seen to have hurt Ireland.

Ireland has historically tended to be a rather pro-European country, with many putting the boom years of the Celtic Tiger partially down to EU membership. Ireland’s constitution means that the country has to have a referendum on every EU treaty. The Irish were the only country that held a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in 2008, which they rejected at first, only to approve a slightly modified text that gave guarantees that Ireland would keep its European Commissioner and not have to legalise abortion (key concerns in the first campaign). Ireland did, however, approve the recent Fiscal and Stability Treaty by a 20 point margin.

Electoral System

Ireland will elect 11 MEPs, down from 12 in 2009.

Ireland is one of the three places in the EU which do not use the party proportional lists in their European elections (along with Malta and Northern Ireland). Ireland instead uses the Single Transferable Vote (which it uses for all other elections).

STV is a candidate centred proportional electoral system. In this system voters are given a list of candidates from all parties and independents and rank them. A quota is established, based on the number of votes and seats to be filled. If a candidate passes the quota then they are deemed elected. Additionally any votes over quota are redistributed to other candidates on the basis of preferences. If no candidate is over quota then the worst performing candidate is eliminated from the count and their preferences are redistributed. This continues in a series of rounds until all seats are filled.

This is a complex, and lengthy, process but what it essentially means is that voters are able to express support for candidates both across and between parties. Voters can cast a first preference for a Labour candidate, a second preference for a Fine Gael candidate and a third for an independent regardless of their party preference, for instance. Party candidates must often compete with one another, and independents can and do very well in Ireland. Ireland’s parliament has the largest number of independents of any EU member state’s parliament by a long way (15 were elected in 2011).

STV also has a few other notable effects. Parties can, if they wish, make deals to recommend that their voters preference another party highly. Fine Gael and Labour often make such deals. Parties who have broad-based support and who receive high second and third preferences because of it will also do extra well, and parties that are polarising will do less well. For instance, in 2007, the Green Party, which received strong preference transfers from other parties won 6 seats on 4.7% of first preferences, whereas Sinn Fein, which has a ‘love it or hate it’ quality and receives poor preference transfers from other parties won 4 seats on 6.9%. Hence STV rewards parties with broad approval and punishes polarising ones.

Ireland’s STV system generally takes place in constituencies of around 3-5. At the last European Parliament election Ireland used four constituencies of three seats, but the removal of a seat has led to a boundary revision where one of the constituencies has been eliminated. To create a two member constituency would have significantly harmed proportionality. Hence, there are now one two four seat constituencies (Midlands-North West and South) and one three seat constituency (Dublin).

The relatively small constituency sizes tend to benefit larger parties. The four seaters will likely make the election slightly more proportional and favour smaller parties and independents slightly more.

2009 Election Result

Party European Political Party First Preference Votes Seats
Fine Gael European People’s Party 29.1% 4
Fianna Fail Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe 24.1% 3
Labour Party Socialists and Democrats 13.9% 3
Sinn Fein European United Left 11.2% 0
Socialist Party European United Left 2.7% 1
Independents Not Applicable 11.5% 1

Likely results

Polls show Fine Gael in first place, broadly around their 2009 result. Fianna Fail, slightly rebounding from 2011, looks like it will lost a small amount of support. Labour is only down slightly in terms of popular vote but the quirks of STV may work against it. In particular, in its heartland of Dublin it will be fighting ex-Labour independent Nessa Childers for a seat. The creation of two 4 seat constituencies in its weaker areas may help Labour, however, and work against Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.

Sinn Fein is likely to do well, and is likely to return to the Parliament after a five year absence from the Republic’s representation in Europe.

The Socialist Party is at serious risk of losing its seat, and Independents have the potential to do well.