Brendan Howlin: Why Halligan is wrong about merging parties


Sir, – According to Brendan Halligan, pro-democratic centre-left and centre-right political parties should all merge to stand against anti-democratic populists, authoritarians and nativists (“Centre left and centre right parties are ‘redundant’, MacGill hears”, News, July 24th).

Brendan is wrong, in his own terms.

Ireland’s mainstream political parties already co-operate, in formal coalitions, in local government and in the operation of the Dáil and Seanad. We can work together to defend democratic values and oppose extremism without any logical requirement to merge.

There are significant differences between Ireland’s centrist parties. In every government it has joined, Labour has protected wages, social protection and State industries to the best of its ability. And we have had to fight to do so against others in government. A single Irish centrist party, dominated by the centre-right, would have given us a lower minimum wage, lower welfare payments, widespread privatisation and a weaker economic recovery as a result.

Labour has also uniquely championed marriage equality and women’s reproductive rights, long before other parties caught up with social change on these matters.

It matters to have multiple parties. As we can see in Westminster and elsewhere, backbenchers in one big party have a lot less influence than minority parties in coalition.

Brendan rightly points to the importance of institutions in cementing democratic gains. But he overlooks the fact that proportional representation has been institutionalised in Ireland, and the most extreme examples of populism in the western world have occurred in countries operating under less proportional referendums and voting systems, such as the disproportional electoral system that gave Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz-KDNP party in Hungary two-thirds of the seats (67 per cent) with just under half of the votes (49 per cent).

As long as we maintain proportional representation, Ireland’s people are better served by having a choice of government coalitions, each of which offers real policy differences. If choice was reduced to a national centrist party versus extremists, this would weaken Irish democracy.

In such a scenario, it is inevitable that people would eventually grow disaffected with the centrist monolith and vote for change, even if that meant electing Ireland’s answer to Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán or Boris Johnson.

As long as there are multiple parties, there will be greater freedom of speech, greater diversity of policy ideas and stronger democracy as a result. – Yours, etc,


Leader of the Labour Party,

Leinster House,

Kildare Street,

Dublin 2.