Political parties – what are they for?


Sir, – Hugh Sheehy (Letters, July 13th) questions whether we need political parties anymore, saying that “perhaps in the 18th century . . . but not nowadays”.

In fact, centralised and disciplined political parties as we now know them did not exist in these islands until well into the 19th century with the foundation of the Conservative Party in 1834, and the evolution of the Irish Parliamentary Party under the leadership of Parnell from 1882 onwards.

Up to that point, governments rose and fell based on the support of shifting factions of MPs, loosely gathered around the leading personalities of the day.

This led and led to near-permanent instability, with graft and patronage being employed on an industrial scale in order to secure the passage of any controversial measures.

Since the advent of universal suffrage, political parties have acted as vehicles through which voters can endorse a clear manifesto of policies at the ballot box and have a reasonable expectation that they will be implemented in office. In turn, parties can form governments on their own or in coalition, offering voters some degree of political stability into the medium term.

While the recent formation of a three-party coalition may have taken almost five months, does Mr Sheehy think that a government would have been formed more quickly if 160 Independents had been elected last February?

Anyone who doubts the need for political parties should consider the countries which have none, such as Saudi Arabia and Oman, or just one, like Cuba and China.

These are hardly countries whose example we should seek to follow. – Yours etc,



Dublin 3.

Sir, – Political parties across Europe have witnessed a marked decrease in membership and in their ability to mobilise voter turnout.

Indeed, a feature of recent European politics has been the rise of populist politicians who trade on the idea that they will have nothing to do with the established traditional centre-left and centre-right parties.

Those who have come to politics via protest movements, and who may be less than deferential to party traditions or even democratic norms, tend to appeal directly to voters through social media. Indeed, new communication technologies may have weakened the effectiveness of party organisations for political mobilisation. – Yours, etc,



Co Wicklow.