Political scientist of worldwide repute


PETER MAIR:PETER MAIR, who has died suddenly aged 60, was an Irish political scientist who achieved the rare professional distinction of seeing his career take him from Ireland to mainland Europe where he won an international reputation.

This week, one of his proteges, Prof David Farrell of University College Dublin, said Mair’s international reputation was well deserved. “Peter Mair was a highly significant academic figure internationally. This is a case where the cliche really fits: he was one of the true greats of European political science.”

Mair was born in Sligo in 1951. His father, Moray Mair, was of Scottish origin and served in the Indian army during the second World War, achieving the rank of major. His mother, Billy Mair (neé Kenny) came from Longford. However, like her future husband, she also served with the British forces in the war as a member of Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps.

The pair met in North Africa during the war and were married in 1946. A honeymoon in Sligo ensured an enduring love of the area and they settled in Rosses Point, where Peter was born, along with a brother, Johnny, and sister, Jeanette.

The young Mair went to Rosses Point National School and then boarded for six years at Castleknock College in Dublin. From there, he went to UCD where he studied history and politics. But it was political science that was to become his great love and the substance of his professional career.

In 1987, he was awarded his doctorate by Leiden University in the Netherlands for his thesis, The Changing Irish Party System, today regarded as a standard work on the subject. At Leiden, he held the chair of comparative politics and, at the time of his death, was honorary professor in comparative European politics.

During the 1980s, he was also an assistant professor at the universities of Limerick, Strathclyde, Manchester and the European University Institute (EUI) of Florence, a postgraduate university catering for PhD students and postdoctoral researchers from all over Europe that is the leading such centre on the continent.

Mair joined the EUI in 2005 and was professor of comparative politics and government in its department of political and social sciences. He returned there specifically to pursue research into, among other subjects, democracy, indifference and populist parties. He specialised in comparative politics, including the study of party systems and representation and changes in the nature and functioning of democracy in developed societies in Europe.

The EUI professorship he occupied is regarded by political scientists as the most prestigious of its kind in Europe, according to Farrell.

“He was, without doubt, the leading scholar on the study of political parties and representation, and one of the leading lights in the field of comparative politics,” he said this week. “It would be impossible to publish work in this area without citing his name. He was, quite simply, one of the leading political scientists in Europe. Period.”

At the time of his death, Mair was also dean of graduate studies at the European University Institute.

Farrell’s assessment is shared by Dr Paul Gillespie, former foreign policy editor of The Irish Timesand a lecturer in the UCD school of politics and international relations. “Mair argued that political parties which originated in representing ordinary citizens in 20th century democracies have been transformed by professionalisation, elite dominance, experience of government and the search for political power. Democracy, as a result, has been hollowed out . . . Similar values informed his critical views on contemporary Irish events. His recent work argued that political parties in the European Parliament retained valuable autonomy from the EU executive. This could be developed further, he suggested, possibly by EU-wide elections and referendums. Unfortunately, his death deprives us of these insights, which were much appreciated by students and citizens alike.”

Mair published extensively. His books include: Representative Government in Modern Europe: Institutions, Parties, and Governments(with Michael Gallagher and Michael Lever; MacGraw-Hill, New York, 5th edition 2011); Political Parties and Electoral Change: Party Responses to Electoral Markets,(with Wolfgang Müller and Fritz Plasser; Sage, London, 2004); The Enlarged European Union: Diversity and Adaptation; (with Jan Zielonka; Frank Cass, London, 2002); Party System Change: approaches and interpretations,(Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1997); Identity, Competition, and Electoral Availability: the stabilisation of European electorates 1885-1985,(with Stefano Bartolini, head of the EUI’s Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Study in the Social Sciences; Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990) which received the ISSC/Unesco Stein Rokkan Prize.

In 2001 he became co-editor of the journal West European Politics. He retained a strong interest in political developments in Ireland, as evidenced by his participation in last and this year’s McGill Summer School in Donegal. (His address to this year’s school is published opposite.)

Mair was married to Dr Karin Tilmans, a cultural historian and visiting fellow of the department of history and civilisation at the EUI. They have three children, Cathleen, John and Tessa. His wife and children were the centre of his life outside his work.

They shared a love of Sligo, where they kept a home at Rosses Point to which they went for holidays. Peter was taking a fly-fishing lesson in Connemara with John when he suffered a heart attack.

Family, friends and colleagues this week remembered a man who enjoyed company and whose other interests included social conversation, eclectic reading and film.

“He was also one of the nicest people you could meet. You only had to experience the buzz in a room when he walked in to see that,” said Farrell. “Everyone wanted a bit of his time . . . Peter was always surrounded – a senior figure in reputation even before he was actually such a senior figure in age.”

His brother Johnny Mair said: “He was gregarious and warm. Peter was very modest about his brilliance, but he really was one of the leading figures.”

Mair is survived by his wife and children, and by his brother. His sister Jeanette predeceased him in 2001.

Peter Mair: born March 3rd, 1951; died August 15th, 2011