Reading the Irish voter


POLITICS:IN HIS MEMOIR, Three Villages, the late Donal Foley recalled the occasion when his father was selected as a Labour candidate in Waterford during the 1932 general election, writes Niamh Puirséil.

Then, as now, the leaders of the two larger parties made national tours, and in the course of his, de Valera visited Waterford city, travelling past the Foleys' homestead en route. Foley's mother, Kit, was from a republican family where a picture of the Chief always hung on the wall. On hearing that Dev would be passing, Mrs Foley consulted with her husband (the Labour candidate) on whether she might decorate their house to mark the occasion.

Told (gently) to do as she pleased, that evening, she lined the windows of their house with candles so that when de Valera passed by in a carriage to Waterford, the house looked "like a huge square shrine shining in the darkness".

Intrigued by the display, de Valera asked a local companion about the lighted windows, and was amused to be told it was the home of the local Labour candidate. De Valera responded that that was why no outsider will ever understand Irish politics.

Certainly, no one has ever understood Irish politics like de Valera, described to me recently by a professor of politics as "Ireland's greatest ever political scientist". It is a cliché that if de Valera wanted to know what the people were thinking he merely had to look into his heart, but if winning elections is a good barometer of public opinion, it looks as though he was on to something.

Others have found the Irish voter less easy to read. In the international political science literature Ireland is painted as an anomaly. One Canadian academic claimed he had been "attracted to Ireland by footnotes" since "over and over again the literature of comparative politics noted simply 'except in Ireland'".

Ireland is unusual in many respects, not least in the dominance of the parties which grew out of the Civil War split, which refuse to conform to any handy left-right divide. During the 1950s, Jack White, then deputy editor of The Irish Times was asked by a foreign journalist to explain the position of the various parties.

"Draw a line," he responded, "and put all the parties well to the right."

The parties' lack of class identity was mirrored in the voters. The analysis in the famous 1974 article by the late Professor John Whyte which proclaimed Ireland had "politics without social bases" has been nuanced but not discounted.

The unusual nature of Irish politics is complicated further by the use of the Proportional Representation electoral system using the Single Transferable Vote (PR-STV). It has fostered the multi-party system and has increased the localist nature of Irish politics since candidates in the same party have to compete against each other for votes, as well as fighting their opponents in other parties.

The lack of social cleavages and the impact of PR-STV makes establishing voter behaviour in Ireland a difficult but illuminating exercise. Unfortunately, our understanding of voters' motivation has been held back by the lack of appropriate polling data. The publication of The Irish Voter marks Irish political science's great leap forward.

The Irish Voter is based on the results of the first ever Irish election study, which was conducted following the 2002 general election. Using the results of almost 2,700 in-depth questionnaires, the authors have forensically dissected the Irish body politic to establish what determined how people voted, and, in the case of 37 per cent of the electorate, why they did not vote at all.

It looks at issues such as class support, party policies, voters' identification with parties, how voters attributed credit and blame for the Celtic Tiger, the importance of support for party leaders and whether grass roots campaigning has any impact on support or turnout.

The 2002 election (which seems a million years ago, rather than six) saw the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrat government returned comfortably, while Fine Gael suffered its worst electoral setback in decades, losing half of its front bench at the poll.

Taking place in the days before the Celtic Tiger had jumped the fence, it shows that most voters thought the outgoing government had done a good job. The opposition failed utterly to capitalise on unpopular issues: they believed the problem of crime was not the government's fault and in the case of health, felt the opposition parties would fare no better.

Apart from the bigger picture, this book points shafts of light into many previously hidden corners of Irish electoral behaviour, and some of its findings will give nightmares to many politicos should they choose it for bed-time reading.

It is a serious, scholarly study. There are no teeth grindingly twee references to archetypes like Breakfast Roll Man and some readers unfamiliar with the workings of regression analysis might find the weight of statistics somewhat off-putting.

Anyone interested in democracy should persevere, however, for this is essential reading for tallymen, apparatchiks, scholars and political anoraks alike.

This type of study is not merely academic navel-gazing.

The abject failure of the larger political parties to bring the Irish electorate on board in the recent referendum illustrates the danger of ignoring the idiosyncrasies of the Irish voter and makes this book required reading before Lisbon II.

Niamh Puirséil lectures in the School of History and Archives, UCD. Her book The Irish Labour Party, 1922-73 was published by UCD Press in 2007

The Irish Voter The Nature of Electoral Competition in the Republic of Ireland, By Michael Marsh, Richard Sinnott, JOhn Garry and Fiachra Kennedy, Manchester University Press, 272pp, £16.99