Soldiers of Destiny fall victim to voter vengeance


ANALYSIS:Political Ireland is now largely a Fianna Fáil-free zone, but remains a long way short of a fundamental realignment of the party system, writes MICHAEL MARSH

ELECTIONS ARE about many things, but on February 25th, 2011, there was one overwhelming motivation that dominated everything and may have fundamental consequences for our party system for the foreseeable future.

That motivation was vengeance.

The pioneer of modern election analysis, VO Key jnr, described the electorate as a god of punishment and reward. This time that deity opted for the former, and delivered a verdict that will have exceeded the government’s worst fears, as Fianna Fáil – the party that has dominated Irish politics for almost 80 years – won only 20 seats in the 31st Dáil and the Green Party, the junior partner, suffered a wipeout.

Forget constituency work, forget ministerial experience and goodies from the pork barrel, forget family links and traditions. If you were carrying a government label (whether or not that label was on your election literature), then the voters, who turned out in numbers not seen for many years, gave you a wide berth.

Fianna Fáil fell from 41.5 per cent of the vote in 2007 to just 17.4 per cent, effectively deserted by six of every 10 people who supported that party last time.

The Lansdowne/RTÉ exit poll asked people to express their feelings about how the country was being run. The strongest emotion was anger, followed by outrage, then worry and fear. Even Fianna Fáil voters were angry, but the remainder averaged something between “moderately” and “very” angry.

This is the clearest message of the election. The policy mandates are much less decisive, and there is little enough evidence in the exit poll that people voting for most parties had concrete policy objectives in mind. Certainly “change” was the message voiced by newly elected candidates from Fine Gael, from Labour, from Sinn Féin and the United Left Alliance. But the definition of that change varied, as we might expect, from party to party.

Fianna Fáil’s seat total of 20 is an even more stark comment on people’s dissatisfaction than its share of the vote. Proportionally, we would expect a party winning Fianna Fáil’s vote share to win 29 seats, so their total was nine fewer than this. We can often expect a smaller party to get no more than a small seat bonus but not that it would fall so short of an expected share.

Two major explanations for this showing arise. The first is that the party ran too many candidates; a point commentators had been making for some time. It was well known to the party, but it is difficult to drop sitting TDs and ensure they don’t stand as Independents. The party needed to downsize, but was unable to do it.

The consequence of this was that share of the vote that would normally lead to a seat did not do so, as neither candidate stayed in the race long enough to get the necessary transfer support from other parties. In the event, only in Laois Offaly could Fianna Fáil win two seats, and in most constituencies it won none at all.

Political Ireland is now largely a Fianna Fáil-free zone in geographical terms. Where the party did win its one seat in Dublin, this was because Brian Lenihan was by far the stronger of the two candidates and took the lion’s share of the vote. It is arguable that had the party been in a position to operate a single candidate strategy it could have collected many more seats.

The second reason the party might have done so badly is its failure to attract transfers. This was signalled in the polls taken during the campaign. RTÉ’s analysis of transfers (with a few counts still to complete) show Fianna Fáil took only 8 per cent of Fine Gael transfers, 7 per cent of Labour transfers and 13 per cent of those from Independents, all figures below, but not far below, comparable ones in 2007.

Where the candidate making the transfer had no further running mates, the party did much worse in terms of transfers from Labour and Independents and this could have hurt the party in the critical final counts. Fianna Fáil candidates were the runners-up in many seats, missing out often by quite a small total. The scale of this defeat means the party faces a huge task in terms of rebuilding the infrastructure of a successful party. This can be done, but it is much more difficult than that which faced Enda Kenny and his small band of TDs in 2002.

In contrast to Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour enjoyed seat bonuses, with Fine Gael getting a huge 17 seats more than expected in proportional terms. The system seems to have amplified the message being sent to the government parties. This is the sort of bonus enjoyed by Fianna Fáil in recent elections, particularly in 2002.

That Fine Gael did so well is due to the same factors that explain Fianna Fáil’s weakness. The candidate strategy was generally excellent, and votes were managed as appropriate, with senior party figures willing to “give” votes to junior colleagues for the party good. Fine Gael also transferred well internally, keeping almost 78 per cent of its support, compared with Fianna Fáil’s 58 per cent, and broadly maintained the receptiveness to transfers from other parties that it enjoyed in 2007.

One exception to this is the Labour-Fine Gael transfers. These are down on 2007, when the two parties ran a joint campaign, but they were still significant. Fine Gael still took the largest share of Labour’s terminal transfers and by far the biggest share of intermediate transfers. It also did better than other parties in terms of transfers from Independents. This goes a long way to explain how the party could win so many seats with a (relatively) modest vote share.

Labour also enjoyed its highest seat share, winning perhaps 36 to Fianna Fáil’s 20, with only 2 per cent more of the vote. This says more about Fianna Fáil’s failure than Labour success. It is far less used to running multiple candidate campaigns than either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, but internal transfers were pretty good at just under 60 per cent, and it enjoyed good transfers from Fine Gael, no less generous than they were in 2007. Fine Gael voters clearly favoured Labour candidates to a degree not reciprocated by Labour voters, perhaps because some of the latter feared a Fine Gael majority.

Sinn Féin typically win fewer seats than it should given its vote share, and this persisted in 2011, but to a much smaller extent, falling just one or two seats short. This meant it came close to Fianna Fáil’s seat share with just over half of Fianna Fáil votes.

The party remains weak in the transfer market, though it took 13 per cent of terminal Independent transfers as opposed to just 5 per cent in 2007. As the Independent vote was so much higher this time that constituted a significant boost, and helped the party to exceed its target nine to 10 seats by a comfortable margin.

This has given us a 31st Dáil whose composition is very different in some ways to its predecessors. Three-quarters of all deputies are from the three parties who have dominated politics and government to date, but the relative size of these three is quite unlike anything we have seen before.

The other quarter comprises many Independents, but there is also now a sizeable and confident Sinn Féin party and a significant group of self-consciously left-wing deputies.

We are a long way short of a fundamental realignment of the party system. But it is evident that the dealignment that has been written about at least since the 1980s has enabled this outcome, and has been reinforced by it.

This was not an election that followed traditional loyalties and we may wonder whether any election in the foreseeable future will do so, even to the extent of 2002 and 2007.

This may be exciting for political observers, but for all those new politicians joining the ranks of what has become almost the most vilified of professions and taking their seats in the new Dáil, it means there is little in the way of insurance. The party label is no longer a guarantee of safety, nor is putting the head down and providing a good constituency service.

A popular TV advertisement for a British insurance company which ran for many years showed a man in a suit exhibiting the most carefree air despite the lyrics of a Nat King Cole soundtrack warning “there may be trouble ahead”. The message was that he had the strength of the insurance company as his safeguard. In real life it later became clear that the company was less secure than it might have been!

This batch of TDs will be paid much less, and will have many of the other benefits enjoyed by their predecessors deferred or abolished. They will start out as optimists, and must “face the music, and dance”, as must we all.

Michael Marsh is Professor of Comparative Political Behaviour and pro vice provost of Trinity College, Dublin

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