The Irish General Election

Introduction

There will be an Irish General Election on Saturday 8th Feb. Given the “one way mirror” down the Irish sea, where the Irish can see Britain clearly, but not vice versa, here is a brief guide.

As an example of the one-way mirror, one of the UK’s best-paid and supposedly informed journalists tweeted this analysis:

This makes absolutely no sense. Of all the political parties in Ireland, Fine Gael is the most pro-British, which is only to say the most willing to consider the past as water under the bridge. Furthermore, there are few votes to be gained by being anti-British. The most “anti-British” party in Ireland, Sinn Féin, is surging in the polls, but for reasons which have absolutely nothing to do with being “anti-British”.

The bigger picture is that the Irish electorate sees Brexit as having been done, as far as it affects Ireland (only 3% rank Brexit as the most important issue). The primary objectives of protecting the GFA and ensuring no land border, have been achieved through the Withdrawal Agreement (WA), which is now binding in international law. Brexit is seen near-universally as a historic mistake, but the Irish understand sovereignty, as well as the distinction between real and imaginary oppression, and know Britain is sovereign and needs to make its own choices.

There is an acceptance that with Brexit there may be collateral damage in terms of economic consequences. Certain sectors, particularly agri-business will be adversely affected, but this will be offset by increased foreign investment in others.

More important is potential instability of the island, given that the long term status of Northern Ireland is now in question. Many Loyalists are deeply angered at the Johnson Deal, putting an economic border down the Irish Sea. There is a worry that they may restart terrorist activities, perhaps not just in NI.

The important issues, however, to the Irish voters are domestic rather than foreign affairs. It has been referred to as the HHH election: housing, health and homelessness.

This piece will discuss the electoral system, a brief overview of the parties, issues and likely outcomes.

The Electoral System

There are 39 multi-member constituencies, that elect 160 TDs (members of parliament), to Dáil Éireann, Ireland‘s house of representatives, to a maximum term of five years. The “magic number” to form a government is therefore 80.

Ireland uses a form of Proportional Representation: the Single Transferrable Vote (STV). No voting system is perfect, but the Electoral Reform Society ranks STV as the best compromise between proportionality, voter choice and local representation. In contrast, the UK FPTP system is ranked lowest.

The country is divided into multi-seat constituencies, each with 3-5 seats (Fig. 1). Electoral boundaries are normally revised after each census by the independent Constituency Commission. County identity is very strong in Ireland and the most populous counties such as Dublin and Cork will be split into many constituencies. The least populous counties such as Leitrim are merged with a neighbouring county, Sligo in this case.

Fig. 1 The Constituencies from @IrishPolMaps

In the STV system, candidates are ranked by the elector in numerical order from first to last preference. One can vote for a single candidate by placing 1 in the box or a number of candidates in decreasing order of preference by placing 2, 3 etc. in their respective boxes, down to candidates or parties who are so toxic that there is no way they will be given a vote.

The count proceeds as follows:

Step 1. The quota is set by the following formula:

This is rounded up to the nearest integer. 

Step 2. The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and the next preference assigned to the remaining candidates.

Step 3. If a candidate reaches the quota, the candidate is elected and the surplus votes are transferred to the next preference.  If for example, the quota is 10,000 and the lead candidate gets 12,000 votes, 2000 votes will be transferred.

The actual procedure is fairly complex and explained in detail here. The decision as to whether to implement step 2 or step 3 first depends on the particular circumstances of the election, but always favours electability of the candidates – no candidate is eliminated if there is a theoretical possibility of her/him getting elected.

The counting stops when all the seats have been filled. This can run to many days and counts. Some examples of close results are given in Every vote counts: The closest election results in recent Irish history. For people interested in politics it has been described as the closest thing Ireland has to test cricket.

It is also, at times, immensely unpredictable. Whereas the most popular candidate in each constituency is likely to win, as the count continues, being transfer-friendly helps greatly and prediction well-nigh impossible. It has the additional benefit of penalising negative campaigning because it’s always worth being transfer-friendly — able to attract preference votes from supporters of rival candidates.

The more civil nature of Irish political discourse can surprise observers of politics on either side of the country, as here for example:

A very good question, with some instructive replies.

The unpredictability element makes every constituency interesting. Unlike the UK where many constituencies are so safe, they are not worth any electoral effort. Every constituency is hard-fought.

Whereas the system is simple for the voter. It is not so for the parties. How many candidates do you run in a particular constituency? Too many and none may get elected as the votes may be too split – all your candidates may be eliminated. Too few and all your candidates will be elected easily, but more seats could have been won had you been more ambitious. It seems Sinn Féin may regret not running more candidates. They may end up countrywide with the highest number of votes, but not the highest number of seats. Such results are unusual. Ordinarily there is, without any mechanical linkage, a good match between the two.

A very brief guide to The Parties

The analysis in Andrew Neil’s tweet has no merit, but the embedded image shows predicted vote share and where the parties lie on the European political spectrum. An earlier PP post: The European Parliament: the Parties, gives detailed information (one party, ALDE has changed to Renew Europe (RE) with the arrival of Macron’s En Marche party).

The Irish Green party is very much embedded in the European Green movement and needs no further explanation. Indeed the Green EP co-leader Ska Keller has been over campaigning in Ireland. The other parties from right to left are Fine Gael (centre right), Fianna Fáil (centerish right), Labour and the Social Democrats (centre left), Sinn Féin (left) and Solidarity- People Before Profit (left to far left).

Only Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin are likely to get over 10% of the vote (though the Greens may so so if they have a good night) and these will be discussed in some detail.

Fine Gael

Fine Gael is allied to the EPP, a centre-right grouping of which the Tories were members before they veered to the far right. It is akin to what the Tory party might be like if people like Dominic Grieve, Anna Soubry and Heidi Allen were in charge.

They currently are the party of government. The Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Tánaiste Simon Coveney, Minister Helen McEntee, Senator Neale Richmond and MEP Mairead McGuinness should be well known to a UK audience through numerous TV appearances as Brexit unfolded. The EU trade commissioner Phil Hogan is also a FG member and likely to become better known over coming months.

Strengths: They are almost universally perceived as having done an excellent job on Brexit. They have run the macro-economy well and balanced the books. They also have a great depth of talent.

Weaknesses: Pretty much the entire domestic agenda. Housing, Health, Homelessness, Education and Transport are all major issues. They are considered remote, uncaring and a party of the well-off. Traditionally they draw support from urban areas and the professional and middle class. They have been in power for nine years and people want a change.

Fine Gael would very much like to run the election on Brexit and their macro-economic performance. The GFC had proportionately a much higher effect on Ireland than the UK, but it has recovered far better. Sadly for FG it is domestic issues that are dominating the election.

Fianna Fáil

Fianna Fáil is allied to RE (formerly ALDE) in the European Parliament. This is a centrist Liberal Democrat grouping. In terms of policies, however, they are almost indistinguishable from FG. They have had, however, a unique ability to appeal to Plain People of Ireland and have been electorally very successful. They could be described as a centrist populist party, if that is not an oxymoron.

There is currently no party quite like them in Europe, but they are in many ways similar to Democrazia Cristiana – the Italian party that dominated Italy in the 50y period from 1944-94. More detail can be found on FF and the difference between then and FG, in my recent blog post, here.

The leader is Micheál Martin who is not well known outside Ireland but is considered a formidable campaigner.

Strengths: They have had vast experience of government and are not FG. They are seen as more caring and very much more a party of the people and perceived to have better policies on health and housing.

Weaknesses: They has been serious FF corruption in the past, particularly in the Haughey era. More recently, they made one of the most disastrous decisions of any government, misdiagnosing the position of Irish banks after the GFC as a liquidity rather than solvency crisis, underwriting the banks (particularly Anglo Irish), nearly bankrupting the state.

Sinn Féin

Sinn Féin is an all-island party and I wrote an extensive profile on them before the UK GE in December. They are a left-wing progressive party, who might be described as Corbynite. They have moved from a Lexit agenda to a remain and reform agenda on the EU. Their keynote policies include a massive social house building programme.

They are also the only party pushing for a United Ireland in the near future. Whereas FF and FG would ideally like a United Ireland, they think it is premature, especially given that the UK is in a state of flux with Brexit.

The leader is Mary Lou McDonald who may be best-known in the UK for her outspokenness when May was visiting Northern Ireland.

Strengths: Ireland has effectively been dominated by FG and FF since the foundation of the state. People are hungry for a change and may be ready for a left-wing progressive government.

Weaknesses: There is still deep suspicion about their historic IRA links, particularly with voters over 50. There are also suspicions re the true leaders of Sinn Féin. Is there a shadowy IRA army council lurking in the background? The not forgotten violent recent past make SF toxic to many voters and many questions being asked.

The Issues

The latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll was taken at the end of January. Asked which issues would have the most influence on their vote, 40% of voters said health was their most important issue, 32% said housing. The full results are shown in Fig 2.

Fig. 2 Issues for the Irish GE click here for an interactive bar chart.

The results vary significantly by age. For the 18-25y cohort, the three most important issues were housing at 51%, health at 18% and climate change at 16%. For the 65+ cohort, the three most important issues were health at 60%, housing at 24% and the economy and climate change tied at 5%. Regarding the management of Brexit, the most concerned cohort seems to be the 25-34y olds, and even there it is only 4%. The truth is that Ireland began preparing for Brexit the day the referendum was called in the UK and, rightly or wrongly, the issue no longer has much salience.

This is bad news for Fine Gael. The issues on which they are perceived to be the strongest, Brexit and the Economy, are given low importance.

Vote Share and Predictions

Prediction is a mug’s game, particularly in Ireland. I recently did one on NI on the 2019 GE which proved surprisingly accurate, but FPTP is far easier to predict.

There are so many moving parts in an Irish election. FPTP is kindergarten by comparison to STV and can be easily gamed. The vote also seems very fluid. Is the SF surge going to continue or is it going to drop back? The Red C poll (Fig. 3) has SF and FF tied for first place with FG well behind.

Fig. 3 Red C Tracking Poll Feb 2020 (ref)

Recent SF electoral results (with the exception of the Dublin West by-election) have not been great and they have taken a rather defensive stance. Their strategy has been to keep their existing TDs and hopefully elect a few more. They are only running 42 candidates and even if they end up with the greatest vote share they are unlikely to be the largest party.

The likelihood is that FF will end up with the greatest number of seats, with SF second and FG third. The mathematics may point to a FF/SF coalition, possibly with the Greens or Labour being needed to make the magic 80.

Micheál Martin has specifically ruled out a FF/SF coalition. His specific reason for doing so is what he read in Sam McBride’s book Burned of the influence of the IRA on SF in Northern Ireland. It will be interesting to see what ensues.

Conclusions

The campaign has been fascinating. Real grown-up politics with some enormously important questions for democracy (as Fintan O’Toole asks, It is time for Sinn Féin to come in from the cold?) and the future of the island as a whole, not just left-right politics.

The first results will appear on Sunday, but it may be a few days later before the final results are in. That is the penalty of having STV, but the Irish think it is worth it. Indeed, two past attempts to move to a different voting system –the last time by a govt with the largest ever majority–have been very soundly defeated.

I currently live in the UK. At the time of the London Olympics when Britain seemed at it’s best and Ireland was still deep in the heart of the GFC, I felt very fortunate living here. This, sad to say, is no longer the case. Ireland has proven resilient and has improved dramatically as Britain deteriorated. It is extraordinary to think it is just an eight-year period.

One measure of comparative success it the UN Human Development Index (HDI). This measures life expectancy, education and the income per capita. In 2012 Ireland was ranked 17th. In the most recent 2019 report it is ranked 3rd (only Norway and Switzerland are ranked higher).

Fine Gael have done an excellent job in turning the economy around from the bleak place it was in 2012 and have been similarly excellent in implementing Ireland’s Brexit priorities. It has almost been like a war. As Churchill found, however, after WWII voters can be ungrateful and want a change.

Comments

  1. Samuel Johnson -

    There’s a useful article on Irish democracy here https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/07907184.2015.1100815

    One of the criticisms made of PR made repeatedly in the UK is that it breaks “the sacred link between the MP and the constituency”. This, of course, is utter tosh — nothing but self-interested cant. There isn’t a single TD (MP) in Ireland without a constituency (except of course for the one elected speaker of the parliament).

    In truth, the link in Ireland is such that if a govt TD is not responsive to a constituent’s concerns about something, the matter can be taken up with a rival from the opposition who represents the same constituency. This makes for more responsive politicians — indeed it may make them overly responsive and inclined to attend to parochial matters ahead of affairs of state, but there’s simply no possibility of entire areas of the country becoming politically abandoned. Irish democracy wouldn’t allow it.

    In the penultimate election in the UK (I don’t have the latest figures) 68% of votes were cast for politicians who were not elected. That would be inconceivable in Ireland, where every vote matters and people can prioritise issues, candidates, parties, coalitions as they see fit, not simply, as is often the case, vote against a party. Few votes are wasted in Ireland — spoiled votes and those of people who give a single preference to a candidate who is immediately eliminated. Preferences matter and are taken account of.

    Another self-interested argument one hears from incumbent politicians in the UK is that PR leads to backroom deals, to small parties having excessive influence. Naturally, we heard nothing about any of this when the Conservatives bribed the DUP to prop up their govt. Supposedly it leads to unstable govt. Who can look at Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany or any other democracy in which coalition and compromise is normal and say majoritarian tyranny, aka “strong government” is better (that is freedom to treat 52% as 100%)? Compromise and consensus are messy, but they also prevent the imposition of disproportionate outcomes.

    The UK could learn a lot if it had the humility to look at what its neighbours do better. One comment on PR I’ve seen in the UK media: it’s too complicated. Followed by: it can’t be that complicated, whisper: even the Irish can manage it. The Irish have no such conceit and are good at self-criticism (but not yet at accountability). They’re even ready to acknowledge that the form of PR used in Ireland was introduced by, guess who, the British!

    1. Peter May -

      Quite! As I keep saying Whitehall has written more constitutions in the world than anyone else. There should be no excuse for the UK itself having such a ramshakle one

  2. Peter May -

    Thanks for the link to the STV voting system. It’s certainly complicated! I’m still not sure I’ve quite fathomed it…
    Why the quota I wonder?
    What would be the disadvantage of just adding up all the highest preferences in order?

    1. Peter May -

      Thinking about my suggestion I suppose that would give some people more than one effective vote and some none at all. Much like UK FPTP!

    2. Korhomme -

      Once you get the hang of STV, it’s quite easy.

      You might favour a person from a small party, someone whose party has no realistic chance of being elected. You can give this person your first preference — voting with the heart — and give your second preference to a likely winner — voting with the head. That way you can show your support without wasting your vote.

      1. Peter May -

        So indulge me, if you would.
        Lets keep it simple so,100 votes cast in this constituency. Let’s say 20 are clearly voting for a candidate in first place.
        The rest are no clear leader. Where do we go from here?

  3. Gary McNiece -

    Brilliant Analysis Sean
    I would contend that the DUP in Northern Ireland are like a Northern wing of Fianna Fail
    I shall follow the results with interest-The political anorak in me is fascinated with elections

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Gary,
      thanks. Yes I agree the DUP and FF have a lot in common, populism for one and appeal to the “plain protestant people of Ulster”. Someone also pointed out on Twitter that the Greek party PASOK founded by the senior Papandreou is also very similar to FF.

  4. Korhomme -

    Thank you Seán for this; I thought it an excellent summary of the present position. I particularly like the concept of a ‘one way mirror’.

    I’m in N Ireland, so also a bit of an outsider. A few further comments:

    The STV system is used both in the Republic and Northern Ireland for the Assembly. It originated in the 1920 Government of Ireland Act which partitioned the island into ‘northern’ and ‘southern’ parts; both were ‘devo max’, subservient to Westminster. STV is thus an ‘imposition’ from the UK government on Ireland. The ‘southern’ part however wanted independence then rather than Home Rule. The subsequent War of Independence ended with the Anglo-Irish Treaty which established the Irish Free State. However, this wasn’t full independence, and resulted in a Civil War which was won by the pro-treaty faction. FF are the successors to the anti-treaty elements, FG the successors of the pro-treaty party.

    FG are often pejoratively called ‘west Brits’. For decades the policies of FF and FG were next to indistinguishable; traditionally, people voted depending on which side they/their parents/their grandparents were on in the Civil War.

    N Ireland used STV in the first two parliaments, the old Stormont. The ruling Unionist party changed (gerrymandered) this to FPTP in the late 1920s to ensure they always had a majority. The Free State, later the Republic of Ireland has always used STV.

    For real, hardened political nerds there is a difference in the quota distribution between NI and the Republic. In NI all the second (or subsequent) preferences are counted and then the excess proportionally distributed. In the Republic, it’s more like randomly drawing a single ballot and allocating on the preferences on it. It’s a much quicker way of counting, but rather crude.

    1. Korhomme -

      Sorry, it’s not the ‘quota distribution’ but the ‘surplus distribution’. Apologies.

    2. Sean Danaher -

      Thanks, K,
      you are right about the random element in counting. The argument is generally made that it is done for efficiency. It would make the count even longer if all the papers were counted every time. Yet you manage it in NI, which is better practice.

  5. Ian Robert Stevenson -

    from 1265 to 1885 , constituencies in England had two members. So much for the sacred link on a (single ) MP and their constituency.

    1. Korhomme -

      Multi-member constituencies for the UK parliament weren’t finally abolished until the Representation of the People Act 1948, which became effective at the next general election. For example, Down in N Ireland returned two members between 1922 and 1950.

      The university seats in the UK parliament were likewise abolished by this Act. Curiously, voting for them was by STV.

  6. Squozen -

    Really nice work, Seán, thanks.

  7. K C -

    Thanks for providing an informed insight into ROI politics – something that is sadly lacking from much of the UK press / broadcasters.

    STV is one of 4 voting systems that were in operation in Scotland until very recently!

    FPTP : UK General Elections
    AMS : Scottish Parliamentary Elections
    STV : Local Council Elections
    PLS : European Parliamentary Elections (* now obsolete)

Comments are closed.