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Decline of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil real story of election

Performance of Martin’s party surprised many but combined vote hit record low

The result of the 2016 general election represented an astonishing shift in the balance of political power between the State’s two biggest political parties, both of whom had experienced record highs and lows at the previous election.

In 2011, Fianna Fáil support collapsed to the lowest level since the party was founded in 1926, delivering just 20 Dáil seats, while Fine Gael surged to easily the best result in its history with 76 seats.

A year ago all that changed with Fianna Fáil surprising everybody, including itself, by narrowing the gap with Fine Gael from 56 seats to just six.

On one level it looked as if the old order had been restored with the two Civil War parties again dominating the political landscape and the Labour Party suffering a meltdown from 36 seats to seven.


Decline in support

However that is only one side of the story. Far from marking a return to politics as usual, the outcome confirmed a continued decline in support for the two major parties that has been under way for many years.

In 2016, the combined vote for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil dropped below 50 per cent for the first time in the history of the State continuing a trend that had been developing for more than two decades.

It resulted in a Dáil with a record number of Independents, which resulted in the most difficult-ever negotiations on the formation of a government.

For most of the past 90 years, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael (and its precursor Cumann na nGaedheal) averaged more than 70 per cent of the vote at election after election. This dominance was at its height in the early 1980s when the two parties won more than 80 per cent of the vote at three elections in a row.

Along with the Labour Party, which averaged about 9 per cent of the vote, with occasional breakouts into the high teens, it meant that the three long-established parties dominated Irish politics in what was dubbed by the late Brian Farrell as a 2½ party system.

At various intervals smaller parties broke through only to fade again. In the 1940s it was Clann na Talmhan and Clann na Poblachta. In the 1980s it was the Progressive Democrats and the Democratic Left.

In the 1990s and first decade of the 21st century things began to change with the vote-share of the two big parties dropping below 70 per cent. In 2002 it was down to 64 per cent with a surge in support for Independents who capitalised on a drop in Fine Gael support to win more seats than at any time since the early 1920s.

The combined vote of the two big parties revived a little in 2007 in tandem with a recovery in the Fine Gael vote and the collapse in support for the Progressive Democrats who soon followed the Democrat Left into extinction.

Then in 2011 came the earthquake that saw Fianna Fáil suffer an unprecedented loss of votes and seats, accompanied by significant gains by Fine Gael and a massive breakthrough by Labour. It seemed as if Fianna Fáil’s dominance had ended for good and there were widespread predictions that the party would not be able to survive in the long term.

Sinn Féin also made gains in 2011, even if it was nothing like the spectacular breakthrough that had been anticipated on the basis of opinion polls over the previous few years.

One of the features of that election was a dramatic increase in the number of Independents and TDs from small left wing parties and groups. Just as Independents had capitalised on the weakness of Fine Gael in 2002 they battened off the collapse of Fianna Fáil in 2011. Voting Independent represented a halfway house for supporters of both of the big parties when their own side was in difficulties.

Tough measures

The Fine Gael-Labour coalition formed in 2011 had the biggest majority in the history of the State but it needed an overwhelming majority to push through a whole range of tough measures agreed by its predecessor as a requirement of the EU/IMF bailout.

The inevitable unpopularity of those measures took its toll on the Labour Party in the years that followed as poll ratings dropped and a number of TDs deserted the parliamentary party.

In the run-up to the election, the polls indicated that the big winners were going to be Independents and smaller parties as well as Sinn Féin. Sure enough when the election came along support for Independents and smaller parties surged to unprecedented heights with a total of 33 seats out of 158.

This was accompanied by a significant increase in the Sinn Féin vote to 14 per cent which delivered a haul of 23 seats.

The real surprise, though, was that Fianna Fáil had an unexpected surge during the election campaign and the party narrowed the gap with Fine Gael to just a little over one percentage point and six seats.

Complete shock

For Fine Gael the outcome was a complete shock. The party was expecting to lose some seats but not the 26 that went by the board on election day. Taken in tandem with the Labour meltdown, the outgoing government suffered a shattering defeat.

The net result was that the only possible majority government that could be formed required a coalition of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, but that was never going to happen because the Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin had set his face against it.

The upshot was that the focus came on the variety of Independents who were put in a pivotal position to determine who would be in Government. Ultimately seven Independents joined the Government and another two lent their support to the re-election of Enda Kenny as Taoiseach last May by 59 votes to 49.


Most of the Independents, though, stayed aloof from the process of Government formation while the smaller left-wing parties immediately embarked on outright opposition.

Since the formation of the Fine Gael-led minority Government, with the tacit support of Fianna Fáil, opinion polls have shown an increase in the combined support for the two big parties to well over 50 per cent.

Whether the experiment of a minority Fine Gael-led Government, kept in office by a confidence and supply arrangement with Fianna Fáil, will lead to a revival in the combined support for the two main parties or accelerate their decline is one of the big questions facing Irish politics in the years ahead.