Geraldine Kennedy: This election will be different to any other

The 2011 election was the most seismic in memory and it left a very changed political landscape for 2016

There are 166 seats in the current Dáil requiring 84 TDs to form a majority Government. There will be 158 seats in the 32nd Dáil elected in 2016, requiring 80 for an outright majority.  Photograph: Alan Betson, Irish Times

There are 166 seats in the current Dáil requiring 84 TDs to form a majority Government. There will be 158 seats in the 32nd Dáil elected in 2016, requiring 80 for an outright majority. Photograph: Alan Betson, Irish Times


We are facing into a very different general election in 2016, an election of 10 firsts the likes of which we have never experienced in the history of this State. This political judgment isn’t lightly made, but on a very changed election landscape, in order to state it boldly, it is necessary to position the 2016 contest in the context of national elections that came before.

One way or another, I have been involved in covering 12 general elections since 1973. Looking back on them now, in the run-up to the 2016 campaign, they were all distinctive and different in their own right without rocking the political foundations of the State – as Pat Rabbitte was wont to say – in the way that the last one did.

There was Liam Cosgrave’s Fine Gael-Labour coalition with Brendan Corish in 1973 that was known as the “Government of all the Talents” because of the presence of Conor Cruise O’Brien, Justin Keating and Garret FitzGerald inside the Cabinet and people such as David Thornley outside.

Jack Lynch won a historic majority of 20 seats for Fianna Fáil in 1977.

There was Garret FitzGerald’s victory over Charles Haughey to form a minority government in 1981 after Haughey’s first election as Fianna Fáil leader.

This was followed by Haughey’s second election in February, 1982, the minority government of the Tony Gregory deal, Gubu and the telephone-tapping scandal.

Then, in the third general election in 18 months, the five-year FitzGerald-Dick Spring coalition was elected with a comfortable majority in November, 1982.

Next came Haughey’s 1987 minority government supported by Fine Gael’s “Tallaght strategy” under Alan Dukes.

The first Fianna Fáil coalition government was formed in 1989 when Haughey compromised on what was considered “a core value” of his party to enter government with Des O’Malley’s Progressive Democrats.

The first Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition came in 1992 when Dick Spring entered government with Albert Reynolds.

(The first change of government in the history of the State without a general election came in 1994 with the formation of the Fine Gael-Labour/Democratic Left coalition).

Then came the Bertie Ahern coalitions from 1997 (Fianna Fáil and the PDs); 2002 (Fianna Fáil and the PDs) and 2007, of course, when the first three-party Fianna Fáil coalition was formed with the PDs and the Green Party entering government for the first time. There was also the security back-up of Jackie Healy-Rea, Michael Lowry, Finian McGrath and Beverley Cooper-Flynn on the side.

That is just a factual documentation of the changes in traditional voting patterns, loyalties and political influences over more than 40 years. However, it does contextualise where we are now.

I can confidently say, without fear of contradiction, that the last general election in 2011 produced the most seismic shift in politics ever seen by the living generations of voters. It is arguable that it is the biggest change in the party political system that ever happened in this State.

Stephen Collins, political editor of The Irish Times, described the 2011 election in his introduction to the Irish Times Nealon’s Guide as “one of the great transformational contests in Irish political history. Fianna Fáil, the party that has dominated the State for almost 80 years, lost three-quarters of its Dáil seats in an unprecedented rout that changed the face of Irish politics.”

2011 election

The result of the 2011 election was:

Fianna Fáil lost 58 seats, going from 78 to 20, moving from the largest to become the third party;

Fine Gael gained 25, going on to win 76 seats and become the largest party for the first time;

The Labour Party won 17 extra seats, to become the second-largest party for the first time in its history with 37 TDs;

The Green Party lost all of its seats to have no presence in the Dáil;

Sinn Féin gained 10 to win 14 seats, its greatest number of Dáil seats to date;

United Left Alliance won five seats;

There were 14 Independents elected.

What happened last time would normally be the baseline on which the 2016 general election would be fought.

Not this time. With political developments since 2011, the state of the parties going into the 2016 election is:


Fine Gael 68 (including Ceann Comhairle, excluding the recent Seán Conlon resignation in Cavan-Monaghan and the movement to Independents)

Labour Party 33

Fianna Fáil 21

Sinn Féin 14

Anti-Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit 4

Renua Ireland 3

Social Democrats 3

Workers and Unemployed Group 1

Independents 19

Coming back to the point. This is going to be a very different general election to all those that came before, both politically and journalistically.

It is going to be one of the strangest, most fascinating and different general elections where stability in government will be the main issue in a majority of voters’ minds after the uncertainty that has engulfed their personal and financial lives in the wake of the crash and the loss of economic sovereignty in the years of the European bailout. A big threat to it is that the Fine Gael and the Labour Party would squander those sacrifices with auction politics in 2016.

And, the old journalistic rules must apply. It is going to be a challenging – indeed, a difficult and different general election – for The Irish Times to cover in a fair, balanced, proportionate and independent way in the newspaper and, for the first time seriously, across all digital platforms.

This is the first general election in living memory where the election isn’t just about the old conventional 2½-party system. The traditional Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour Party options have been the key to changing and forming governments for decades. They were the key as recently as the last general election in 2011.

(As an aside, John A Costello was taoiseach of a 5½-party government in 1948 comprising Fine Gael, Labour, National Labour, Clann na Poblachta, Clann na Talmhan and Independents. Interestingly, in an illustration of how history can repeat itself, the campaign theme then was Fianna Fáil versus chaos.)

It is the first general election where Fianna Fáil is not the dominant party and even one of its own, former minister Noel Dempsey, stated in an interview on RTÉ recently that the toxicity hadn’t gone away. Its new director of elections, Billy Kelleher, has set a target of between 35 and 40 seats for the party as a good result.

It is the first general election where Fine Gael and the Labour Party can establish and verify that they are leaving the country in a demonstrably better state than when they came into government.

It is the first general election with a compulsory female gender quota of 30 per cent of candidates, with the threat of parties losing State funding. Some 134 of the 438 candidates selected/declared so far, at the time of writing, are women. This compares to 86 in 2011. There are 25 outgoing women TDs, the biggest number on record.

Big differences

It is the first election where Sinn Féin has established a real foothold in the Dáil. It is the first election where there is a significant and visible ideological difference in economic policies, especially around the water charges, property tax and increased taxation on higher incomes. This makes the costing of the promises made in election manifestos a key issue. There are very substantial financial differences and policy implications between the agendas of the different parties.

It is the first election where there are more Independents, new small parties like Renua Ireland and the Social Democrats, official and unofficial political alliances, parties and alliances with and without leaders than ever before.

And, politically and psychologically, this is the election heading into the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, where all existing parties and persuasions will want to stake their claim to some aspect, however dubious at the time, of the creation of this State.

To make matters more complicated, the composition of the next Dáil has changed as well. There are 166 seats in the current Dáil requiring 84 TDs to form a majority Government. There will be 158 seats in the 32nd Dáil elected in 2016, requiring 80 for an outright majority.

The number of constituencies has reduced from 43 to 40. There are historic geographical changes in key constituencies: the two Kerrys, two Donegals and two Tipperarys are gone. There are new constituencies such as Dublin Bay North and Dublin Bay South. All but 11 constituencies are changed.

The key issue now, the most relevant going into the 2016 general election, is that there is no alternative taoiseach for the first time. You have Enda Kenny or chaos – a reproduction of the Fianna Fáil campaign slogan in 1948 that produced a five-party coalition.

As things stand, there is no democratic choice on offer. That is not good for voters. So, as of now, there is not the classic taoiseach balanced by the alternative aspiring taoiseach for the first time in the history of the State. Enda Kenny may be stiff, wooden and uncomfortable on television, but, to his great credit, he chaired a government that succeeded in bringing Ireland out of its worst times, leaving Ministers to get on with it.

If it weren’t for someone as conservative as him coming out to propose the abortion legislation and the same-sex marriage referendum, it is unlikely they would have passed.

Many people would wish that they didn’t have to vote for Enda Kenny in the next election, but they will. Voters have no choice if they want stable government. And, to be absolutely fair to him, it is a big thing to be able to say that here is an outgoing taoiseach who is not besmirched by impropriety, digouts, moral or ethical questions.

Based on political instinct and successive opinion polls, Fine Gael will be the biggest party in the next Dáil. The danger is that it would assert this with arrogance during the campaign. It would do terrible damage to its profile if it went on a spending spree on promises, and there are signs of that in spin and stories in the news.

If 58 seats can change place for one party in one election, there is no reason to believe that that many seats coming from all quarters could not fly all over the place in the next.

Not enough seats

Fine Gael and Labour will not have enough seats probably to return a two-party coalition. This is not all due to Government decisions in the most difficult times. A number of leading high-profile Labour figures are retiring and, in reality, they held personal as much as party seats: Ruairí Quinn, Pat Rabbitte, Eamon Gilmore, for example. The very worst thing that the Tánaiste, Joan Burton, could do is to fight publicly with Fine Gael in the campaign and yet expect to get Fine Gael transfers. Its campaign strategy and the way that it asserts its differences should be agreed privately.

And are we to take it for granted that, irrespective of any shortage of seats for a return of this Coalition, Fine Gael will bring Labour into the next government anyway? Just like Bertie Ahern did with the PDs? Has Fine Gael given Labour such a commitment and, if so, will a newly returned, smaller and younger parliamentary Labour party want to honour it?

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will have enough seats to form a stable majority government but, for historic reasons in 1916, the Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, will not allow it to happen. There is a Fianna Fáil fear that if the two Civil War parties coalesce, the way is left clear for a left-wing government next time. That is old thinking in a different Ireland.

So Fianna Fáil has excluded itself from power in the 2016 government with Fine Gael or Sinn Féin. That would seem to be an unwise and limiting policy.

Are there divisions among the outgoing 21 Fianna Fáil TDs about such a strategy? Would Fianna Fáil choose Sinn Féin over Fine Gael as its preferred partner? Would Sinn Féin form a government with Fianna Fáil or was that a strategic Gerry Adams flier?

And if, as predicted by its director of elections, the honest and respected Billy Kelleher, Fianna Fáil wins 35 to 40 seats, who is to say what a new parliamentary party might decide about its future?

Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin will probably not have the numbers, but Sinn Féin usually over-performs in polls and it will be a major advance if the party gets 20 seats. Will Gerry Adams take active steps to be part of the next government? How will Sinn Féin perform outside the working class? Is it attracting middle-class candidates for election whose parents haven’t been IRA members or active supporters of the republican cause during the Troubles?

Independents, new parties and alliances could be large, all added together, but they are neither a cohesive nor a reliable bargaining force this time.

Looking at the last Ipsos/Irish Times opinion poll, where there was an interesting new question. Breaking down the composition of Others, such as Renua, Social Democrats and independent alliances, it would appear that there is an absence of a big enough cohort of TDs with whom the next government could negotiate comfortably.

There were six PD TDs and six Green Party TD s which a government could do a deal and enter a working relationship with in earlier coalitions. It does not appear that any of the new parties or Independent alliances will produce such a neat negotiable force.

All of these issues will be clarified for voters during the 2016 election. It would be no surprise if, as in Britain, there was a major swing to stability during the campaign and Independents of all hues were squeezed.


1. There is no alternative taoiseach on offer

2. The first election not about 2½ party system

3. FF is not the dominant party

4. FG and Labour left the economy better than when entering government

5. The female quota 6. SF on the threshold of a real advance

7. There is a real ideological differences between parties and manifestos

8. There are more Independents and smaller parties than ever before

9. All parties are claiming ownership of 1916

10. Stability or chaos

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