Irish Politics: A Pre-Election Primer

by Henry Farrell on January 25, 2011

It appears that the Irish election will take place on “February 25”: It should be an interesting one. Some basic briefing notes below: commenters should feel free to add stuff/disagree as appropriate.

The Irish party system has long been an anomaly. The two largest parties – Fianna Fail and Fine Gael – are sociologically distinct (they have different relationships to the state, and different clienteles in the middle class) but are both right of center. A PR-STV voting system coexisted for a long time with a “two and a half party” system in which Fianna Fail faced off against an explicit or implicit coalition between Fine Gael and the Labour party. More recently, greater fragmentation and the rise of smaller parties (the Progressive Democrats, the Green Party) have made it nearly impossible for Fianna Fail to gain an overall majority of seats, leading to more fluid coalitional politics.

Fianna Fail is perhaps closest to French Gaullism in its combination of nationalist ideology and right-of-center populism – it has dominated Irish politics since the 1930s. Its rival (the original party of Irish government), Fine Gael has traditionally been more internationalist (in various ways, some more salutary than others), and has rarely been faulted for its populism (the party’s faults lie in the contrary direction). The Labour party has never really succeeded in challenging the two larger parties – it has however been in several coalition governments (only one of which was with Fianna Fail). There is a Green party, which was part of the government coalition until yesterday. The right-liberal (in the European sense – think Germany’s FDP) Progressive Democrats met with disaster in the last elections and are dead (Mary Harney, their former leader, has announced her retirement from politics). Sinn Fein – long associated with the IRA – hoped to make a breakthrough in the 2007 elections and failed to. It is not an attractive coalition partner for Fine Gael (which has a very strong attachment to the ‘law and order’ arm of the state), or Fianna Fail (which has rationally feared that Sinn Fein, if legitimated, could eat its lunch). The Green party will need to be very lucky not to be wiped out in the forthcoming elections.

Irish political commentators are getting very excited about the possibility of an epochal election. For once, they are probably right. Fianna Fail, over much of the last fifteen years, was lucky enough to reap the electoral benefits of the Irish economic miracle. It is now about to reap the whirlwind unleashed by the collapse of that miracle. The economic crisis of 2008 was escalated to calamity by fiscal imprudence (the Irish government relied heavily on revenues from property transactions), lackadaisical supervision of financial companies (which had been seen as a benefit in attracting international financial firms), and, most of all, by the government’s decision to guarantee all bank debts, and refusal to row back on this commitment when it became clear what that entailed (the state’s assumption of vast amounts of private debt). Ireland’s effective state of near-bankruptcy can be traced back in large part to feckless decisions made by the current government. The existence of strong political connections between Fianna Fail and the most profligate bits of the Irish banking sector has not helped the party’s image either.

Fianna Fail, and its coalition partners the Green Party, have been aware for some time that they faced a beating at the polls. They have been torn between trying to put this punishment off as long as possible, in the hope that things would change, and going to the polls earlier, in the hope that some of the blame would stick to the opposition parties when they entered into government and had to make unhappy choices (this helps explain the Irish government’s unwillingness to enter into negotiations on debt with the EU and IMF – the government parties had hoped that their successors would have to swallow that unpleasant pill).

However, the precise manner in which they are going to the country is likely to exacerbate their problems even further. A leadership ‘heave’ against Brian Cowen (then the leader of Fianna Fail and currently the Taoiseach (prime minister) petered out last week, when it became clear that a majority of Fianna Fail TDs (members of the Dail – the Irish Parliament) felt that a leadership change would not help avert the disaster.

However, shortly after winning the vote within his party, Cowen tried to ‘pull a stroke’ (in Irish parlance) by having a number of senior ministers, who were retiring from politics, resign their posts, so that some of their younger colleagues could be appointed ministers, improving their chances of re-election. The gambit misfired horribly. Fianna Fail up-and-comers did not see association with the government as a source of electoral advantage, while Cowen’s coalition partners, the Green Party, were furious. This led in short order to Cowen resigning his position as party leader (but not as Taoiseach), and the Green Party joining the opposition benches. The government, together with the main opposition parties, have agreed a short timetable for legislation associated with the IMF bailout to be passed, after which the Dail will be dissolved.

So Ireland’s main political party, Fianna Fail is heading into the polls leaderless, demoralized, disorganized, and deeply unpopular. It is effectively being forced to run a leadership contest simultaneously with an election campaign. Its funding machinery is in tatters (it has not been able to run events for large donors as in the past, and local party members have refused to raise money through the traditional means). No-one believes that the party has any chance of winning re-election to the government. People are instead debating the likely extent of the debacle, and its consequences for the Irish party system.

If – as seems plausible – Fianna Fail is beaten into third place, this will make Irish politics much less predictable than in the past. There will no longer be a ‘natural’ party of government around which coalitions are formed. Instead, even if Fianna Fail makes a significant recovery, it will be one of two or three parties that can plausibly play a substantial role. It is likely that Ireland will move closer to a continental system of coalition politics, of the kind that its voting system would seem to encourage.

It is also quite possible that under these circumstances, Fianna Fail would disintegrate, removing the anomaly from Irish party politics. A nearly permanent role in government is a wonderful glue to join together ideological tendencies that would otherwise be distinct; if that glue dissolves than the party itself may decohere. This is especially plausible given the major changes in Irish society over the last twenty years – tribal identities are not what they once were, and Fianna Fail, once out of government, is likely to find that the traditional loyalties it once relied on are wearing thin. One could easily see Fianna Fail’s working class and lower middle class support being split by Labour and Sinn Fein, with the upper middle class rump going over to Fine Gael. In some ways this would be surprising – Fine Gael has been the weaker of the two right of center parties for a very long time. Yet just because of its inability to broaden its appeal through a broadly-aimed populism, Fine Gael may have a stronger core identity in times of ideological crisis.

A third possibility is that Fianna Fail will be able to survive through temporarily reverting to being a coalition of TDs rather than a national party. One _extremely_ safe prediction is that Fianna Fail TDs in risky seats (and few seats are not risky) will be doing as much as they possibly can to disassociate themselves from the government and the national party. This may work to limit the damage – Irish politics are strongly clientelistic, and it is perfectly possible that voters will be more swayed by the specific benefits that they have gotten from their local Fianna Fail TD than by outrage at the sins of the party at the national level. It is quite possible that opinion polls measuring support for the _party in general_ may be substantially estimating voters’ willingness to vote for _specific TDs._

I’m not close enough to Irish politics any more to speculate as to which of these scenarios (or other scenarios that I’ve left out) is more or less likely. Much of the devil will be in the detail of voting under a PR-STV system. I don’t know of anybody with much of an idea of how the current economic crisis is likely to change the ways in which Irish voters allot their second, third and fourth preferences. Yet these preferences are likely to have a very important role indeed in determining outcomes in this election and in future ones. I’ll blog more on this as more material presents itself.

(A slightly different version of this post is up at “The Monkey Cage”:http:/ )



martin 01.25.11 at 3:45 pm

TD? =MP?


Fanny McGhee 01.25.11 at 3:59 pm

It will be interesting to see how Sinn Féin do in this election. For me, they are the most likely to benefit from Fianna Fail’s demise in rural areas, and will likely be returned with at least 7 seven seats, enough to give them speaking time in the new Dail Eireann (or parliament). As well as Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, Labour have also publicly ruled out joining with them in coalition, and recent days has seen senior Labour representatives attack left-orientated groups. For instance, a new grouping calling themselves the United Left Alliance has emerged, though people familiar with left-politics in Ireland know the track-record of such efforts, particularly when the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) get involved.

Some interesting left-perspectives on the government collapse and impending elections are available at Cedar Lounge:

On a more humorous note, it looks like someone is trying to wind up Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams, who has now decided to run for election in the ROI – he may have to apply for the post of Bailiff of the three Chiltern Hundreds of Stoke, Desborough and Burnham before he is released of his obligations to the Crown:


Henry 01.25.11 at 4:15 pm

Just so.


Kevin Donoghue 01.25.11 at 4:30 pm

Henry, “substantially estimating” is obviously not what you meant to write (though the meaning is clear enough). I don’t see much to disagree with here.


Daragh McDowell 01.25.11 at 5:23 pm

Henry, not to diminish what is a very strong attempt to explain the virtually unexplainable, might I humbly suggest that this 15 second video just about sums up how Irish politics works as well as how we got to this woeful state.

Oh – and FF will now be lucky to hold onto third place. Latest polling has them behind the Shinners in fourth, and that was BEFORE last week’s epic meltdown. Labour and FG have largely failed to step up, so at the moment looks like a lot of the void is going to be filled by independents on the left and the right.


Pete 01.25.11 at 5:33 pm

“track-record of such efforts, particularly when the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) get involved”

What is it about the SWP? In the UK they managed to ruin the Stop the War movement and are going on to do the same with opposition to tuition fees.


MPAVictoria 01.25.11 at 6:09 pm

Pete if the situation is anything like in Canada, the problem is that groups like the Socialist Workers Party attract crazy sounding zealots that put off the average person.


P O'Neill 01.25.11 at 6:28 pm

lackadaisical supervision of financial companies (which had been seen as a benefit in attracting international financial firms),

This is an interesting point. We still don’t have a clear explanation of why exactly the financial supervision was as bad as it was, and your suggested explanation is as good as any other. And yet it was the indigenous Irish banks that pulled the roof down on the country, not one of the operations attracted from abroad (exception of Depfa, but Germany has their tab, not Ireland).

So was it simply an aping of the UK Financial Services Authority with ministers and regulators wanting to talk about “light touch regulation”? Too small a circle of politicians and bankers? (had to laugh at Cowen’s defence during golfgate that he had social contacts with Seanie as much as he would with any senior banking executive). The additional element of property along with bankers and politicians that made the brew so toxic? A mental block at seeing the difference between “Irish banking system” and Irish banks, which may be related to the above factors?

One other thing. Another big problem for FF is that it’s now transparently obvious to all the other political players that coalition with FF is the kiss of death. Labour still not recovered from 1992-94. PDs dead. Greens fighting for survival. Even if their voting support is well understated (as I agree it is), they’ll have a hard time finding a partner.


mpowell 01.25.11 at 7:39 pm

I don’t really know anything about Irish politics, but doesn’t the FF represent more of a historical policy position than a coherent platform of views as they typically manifest themselves in modern capitalist democracies? And if so, wouldn’t it be better for the state of Irish politics for the FF party to completely self-destruct and be (partially) replaced by parties with more meaningful, coherent and identifiable policy platforms or principles?


Kieran Healy 01.25.11 at 7:50 pm

Latest polling has them behind the Shinners in fourth



mollymooly 01.25.11 at 8:59 pm

I won’t call Irish STV PR-STV. Three-seat constituencies are not PR.

The poll that puts FF 4th is a deliberate outlier. They will be third and will be the main opposition party. But the entire opposition will be a rogue’s gallery of discredited, fringe, and local mavericks. 2012 might be a good year to launch a new party.


EWI 01.25.11 at 9:04 pm


Pete if the situation is anything like in Canada, the problem is that groups like the Socialist Workers Party attract crazy sounding zealots that put off the average person.

Well, it’s not really that (the SWP’s banner-bearer in swanky Dún Laoghiare is known for his campaigns on public baths and a bus-route), but rather their absolute incapability to straight-deal with others without trying to hijack whatever they’ve joined in (the anti-war protests in Ireland being an example that I witnessed at first hand).

@ mpowell

replaced by parties with more meaningful, coherent and identifiable policy platforms or principles?

Well, they’ll be replaced by (among others) a Labour Party which has spent the last couple of years warming to the idea of “dealing” with the unions and public sector, and advocated an 18% tax rate at the last election. Where is the improvement?

@ all

Labour may find coalition with Fine Gael this time around a rather rocky road, with many parallels to the LibDems with the Tories. The upcoming generation of FG TDs are nothing like the social democrats of Garret Fitzgerald’s day, and many are admirers of Maggie/Ronnie etc.


Daragh McDowell 01.25.11 at 9:29 pm

The poll that puts FF 4th is a deliberate outlier.

Not referring to the Quantum one. RED C had them tied and sinking. Wait for the weekend.


Paddy Matthews 01.25.11 at 9:29 pm

Another big problem for FF is that it’s now transparently obvious to all the other political players that coalition with FF is the kiss of death. Labour still not recovered from 1992-94. PDs dead. Greens fighting for survival.

That is possibly overgeneralising from a small sample.

The PDs’ demise at the last election was self-inflicted – a combination of a health minister seemingly dead-set on privatising the health service and a new party leader who (begging the pardon of his relations on this site) seemed determined to live up to the “nasty party” stereotype. It wasn’t as simple as coalition with FF = death; in 2002 they’d doubled their seats. (In 1987, an electoral pact with FG reduced them from 14 seats to six.)

Between 1992 and 1997, Labour first antagonised the anti-FF element of their support by going into coalition with Reynolds and then antagonised another chunk of support by pulling the plug on that government for no very clear reason, and ended up back at square one in terms of their pre-1992 support.

Looking back at the elections from 1948 onwards, you could make an equally strong case for coalition with Fine Gael being bad news for smaller parties; February 1982 was the only occasion when Labour didn’t lose seats after a spell in coalition.

The safest conclusion to draw is that a spell in government is generally bad for parties of any stripe.


Daragh McDowell 01.25.11 at 9:32 pm

a combination of a health minister seemingly dead-set on privatising the health service and a new party leader who (begging the pardon of his relations on this site) seemed determined to live up to the “nasty party” stereotype.

While there’s a grain of truth in both of those statements, it was turned into a mustard tree of hype by a media establishment that was always hugely hostile to the PDs. You’ll note that when it came to debating economic policy even Pat Rabitte, a former sticky for godssake, had effectively conceded the PDs were right and was campaigning on keeping tax low. Even the Shinners these days are defending the 12.5% corporation tax. A big part of their ceasing to exist was the reason for their existence (the dirigiste economic orthodoxy of the 80’s) ceasing to exist.


Paddy Matthews 01.25.11 at 9:44 pm

a media establishment that was always hugely hostile to the PDs

Which bits of the media establishment would that be, for godssake?

The Irish Times, edited by a former PD TD and with a political editor whose book on the party was so “hostile” that the party bought copies to distribute as canvassing material?

The Irish Independent, where Sam Smyth was happy to act as Boswell to your uncle’s Samuel Johnson?

If Pat Rabbitte was happy to get caught up in the economic madness of the mid 00s, then that was his lookout and possibly a good reason to be wary of voting Labour. By the way, how’s that new economic orthodoxy looking these days?


EWI 01.25.11 at 10:31 pm

@ Paddy Matthews

You forget the radio stations (I’m thinking of RTÉ and Newstalk here). Harney’s claim that she had to resign because she wouldn’t be going for election next time was treated with all seriousness, and accompanied by respectful pieces on her ‘legacy’. It was only on Sunday’s morning radio (and a panel discussion) that this orthodoxy was challenged at all – leading the former PD in the discussion eventually to finally retreat to the claim that Harney essentially invented hospital hygiene.


Daragh McDowell 01.25.11 at 10:35 pm

Which bits of the media establishment would that be, for godssake?

You forget that Fintan O’Toole is effectively the political editor and sets much of its tone. Also RTE – and the Tabloids which far more people actually read.


EWI 01.25.11 at 10:42 pm

@ Daragh McDowell

You forget that Fintan O’Toole is effectively the political editor and sets much of its tone.

Please. There are undoubtedly several long-time IT readers here, and this thread is now going to be derailed by people laughing at you.


Daragh McDowell 01.25.11 at 10:46 pm


Read it every morning. Write to it often. For it occasionally even.


EWI 01.25.11 at 10:53 pm

OK, I’ll bite.

Here’s Harney’s political obit in the IT. Please point out where Stephen Collins (yet another former PD in the IT) is being influenced by Fintn O’Toole:


EWI 01.25.11 at 10:56 pm

And here’s the IT announcement of her resignation:


Kevin Donoghue 01.25.11 at 10:59 pm

And Martyn Turner is the real political editor.


Daragh McDowell 01.25.11 at 11:19 pm

Both are standard ‘minister resigns’ stories, which would read the same if Beelzebub himself had just talked to the Taoiseach. The first contains what is a transparent sting-in-the-tail by detailing her pension provisions (which have became a hugely inflammatory issue here, even though she’s been working 18 hour days for most of the last decade and isn’t entirely undeserving)

Here’s the main article on her term as Health Minister in Saturday’s IT

Here’s another one where the opinion of ULA headbangers were solicited for their deeply thought out and well-informed opinions on Harney –

You might also note the headline of the Irish Daily Mail (a modest, but influential paper) when she left was ‘A Final Act of Betrayal’ even though it had been calling for her to resign for years.

Finally as someone close to people in ‘coalface’ medical professions, most would tell you that Harney made real positive change to the healthservice, and both will tell you she was unfairly demonised in reportage on the health service (as well as a very well entrenched and politically powerful consultantocracy.)


Paddy Matthews 01.25.11 at 11:26 pm

Also RTE – and the Tabloids which far more people actually read.

Ah, I see.

So when you said “the media establishment”, you actually meant the tabloids.


The vast majority of political reporting and commentary in the Times and in Independent Newspapers is from an economically right-of-centre perspective. There are occasional left-wing commentators (O’Toole, Gene Kerrigan, Vincent Browne when he’s in the mood) but the general consensus is what Europeans would describe as economically and socially liberal.


Mise 01.25.11 at 11:26 pm

I will maturely attempt not to derail the thread with laughter at the thought of Fintan influencing the political shades of Noel Whelan et al’s political commentary!

A couple of additional points which I think will be relevant to the election;

– I think it’s unlikely that Sinn Féin and the left-wing alliance will eat into Labour first-preferences; where they will damage Labour is in a failure of their voters to give second preferences to Labour. In previous elections, as ‘far’ left candidates were elimated, their votes would generally transfer strongly in Labour’s favour. But I would think that the increasingly bitter disagreement between Labour and the rest of the left wing on economic policy could seriously damage this transfer rate.

– The PR-STV system obviously demands a pretty skilled vote management strategy to get more than one TD elected for the same party in a constituency. FF are the masters of this, and FG aren’t far behind. Labour have very little experience of attempting to win multiple seats within a constituency, and managing this is seen as their biggest challenge in ‘capitalising’ on their strong first preference polling.

– It’s been mentioned, but you can’t emphasise enough the extent of the ‘personal’ vote which Fianna Fáil candidates attract. There is no end to the stories of people overhearing on a bus conversations which move faultlessly from “Aren’t FF a disgrace” to “Sure of course I’ll vote for Michael, isn’t he a Murphy; you can’t tar them all with the same brush.” I’d honestly be surprised to see Fianna Fáil get much less than 25% of the vote, on the back of this alone.

– It might be worth mentioning, to point out quite how embedded in Irish life Fianna Fáil, the level of media coverage, at a time when there is plenty else that needs covering in irish politics and economics, which has been dedicated to internal wrangling in Fianna Fáil over the past weeks. A month or so ago, with FF having fallen to fourth in opinion polls, an hour long current affairs programme on the national broadcaster was dedicated entirely to ‘the future of Fianna Fáil,’ and filled almost entirely with FF members voicing their aspirations for the future, and could have been mistaken for an internally produced political broadcast. It will take a long time for a blatantly biased Irish media to be forced to catch up with the fact there’s no rationale for such one-sided coverage anymore, and longer still for FF to contemplate life beyond guaranteed government. I certainly wouldn’t predict any mergers any time soon.


EWI 01.25.11 at 11:27 pm

Dear, oh dear. The “ULA headbangers” turn out to be:

DR DONAL O’SHEA, consultant endocrinologist and campaigner on obesity

PROF BRENDAN DRUMM, first chief executive of HSE 2005-2010

JANETTE BYRNE, Patients Together

TIM O’HANRAHAN, consultant general surgeon, Sligo General Hospital

JONATHAN IRWIN, Founder Jack & Jill Foundation

EAMON TIMMINS, Age Action Ireland

DR MEL BATES, Irish College of General Practitioners

PAUL MURRAY, head of communications, Irish Hospice Foundation

PAUL KELLY, founder of Console, a suicide bereavement and prevention service

But there was:

CONOR Mac LIAM , whose wife Susie Long died of bowel cancer in 2007 after waiting seven months for a colonoscopy, is a general election candidate for the Socialist Party/United Left Alliance in Carlow/Kilkenny

Still, plural.


Paddy Matthews 01.25.11 at 11:30 pm

Here’s another one where the opinion of ULA headbangers were solicited for their deeply thought out and well-informed opinions on Harney

The “ULA headbanger” in question saw his wife die of colon cancer after a prolonged wait for a test. He has every right to be angry. I’d draw the horns in on that one if I were you.


EWI 01.25.11 at 11:37 pm

The first contains what is a transparent sting-in-the-tail by detailing her pension provisions (which have became a hugely inflammatory issue here, even though she’s been working 18 hour days for most of the last decade and isn’t entirely undeserving)

18 hour days? Colour me rather sceptical, old boy. Those that include all of her many junkets, one might ask? (feeling magnaminous, I’ll believe the cover story regarding the overnight Vegas trip on the Government jet).

The other article is entirely fair. What, exactly, doesn’t tally with the generally-accepted failure of the HSE?


Paddy Matthews 01.25.11 at 11:39 pm

The first contains what is a transparent sting-in-the-tail by detailing her pension provisions (which have became a hugely inflammatory issue here, even though she’s been working 18 hour days for most of the last decade and isn’t entirely undeserving)

The two authors of that story are the previously-mentioned political editor of the Irish Times whose book your uncle saw fit to use as a canvassing tool in Dublin South East, and a former press officer for the PDs.

How much more “hugely hostile” could you get?


Henry 01.25.11 at 11:43 pm

bq. You forget that Fintan O’Toole is effectively the political editor and sets much of its tone.

I just don’t think that this can be sustained as a credible argument. Nor can the idea that the Irish Times is a well of anti-PD bias (no-one has mentioned Mary Minihan yet, their senior political reporter, who is very good as far as I can tell, but also a former PD press person). And the Independent Group newspapers were not precisely fountains of unreasoning hatred for the PDs either.

As for RTE – yes a lot of people working for them don’t like the PDs, but there was a reason for that old “Thaddeus the TD” cartoon which had an episode of Questions and Answers featuring “as usual, a varied assortment of the McDowell family.” Not, obviously, that I am in any better position than you to complain about the last of these, but the PDs did quite well, all in all, from the media and I really think that the contrary claim is completely unsustainable.


P O'Neill 01.25.11 at 11:51 pm

The PR-STV point mentioned in comment #11 is important. There’s a major integer problem in the outcomes that has “distorted” the seat count away from the vote count. Historically FF has played this well & FG badly. With the volatility in poll numbers and the increased toxicity of FF in transfers (and perhaps the reduced equivalent for SF), it’s extremely hard to predict the seat outcomes even if the poll numbers are roughly correct.

I think the Sindo was especially keen on a poll like the one they managed to, er, produce on Sunday, so that the Green Menace line could be uncorked and an ancillary line of attack on Micheal Martin (from Eoghan Harris) could be opened up — only Lenihan can save us from the Shinners.


Paddy Matthews 01.26.11 at 12:03 am

Historically FF has played this well & FG badly.

It would be more accurate to say that FG have played it less well – other than the disaster of 2002 they’ve always got a bonus of some sort and during the Garret era they were outplaying FF at the game.

The problem in 2002 was the same problem that faces FF in 31(?) days’ time – too many candidates chasing too few first preferences – but even then there wasn’t the same general contempt that there is now.

Be careful, P – Harris was sniffing eagerly around FG in the Sindo the week before last and he might yet fancy another Senate nomination ;-)


Daragh McDowell 01.26.11 at 12:05 am


Having watched the treatment of them in the last two governments up close, I beg to differ. Harney, in particular has been subjected to savage treatment in the public sphere. I take your point on the Independent group obviously, but PD-bashing was a very easy and very popular game virtually everywhere else. But I suppose this is a subjective claim.

@Paddy Matthews

First off – you’re right ‘A ULA Headbanger.’ Fine – but a serious conversation about what to do with the health service cannot, nor should not I would argue, be had with a group who 99% of the time are at each other’s throats over their differing interpretations of an ink blot in one of Trotsky’s journals. Secondly, while it is of course tragic that this man’s wife died to a screw up in the health service, the ULA and its ilk were the first to show up to protest when cancer services were centralised, leading to a significant improvement in cancer care.

As to the rest – you’ve successfully identified former PD press officers working for the Irish Times. You haven’t addressed the actual content of the articles.

@EQI Knowing people who would know her personally, and have no reason to embellish her work ethic (and not talking about my relatives here) I am pretty confident she worked damned hard, and damned long.


Paddy Matthews 01.26.11 at 12:19 am

You haven’t addressed the actual content of the articles.

Let’s see. There’s nothing hostile in the Collins-Minihan article at all – the addendum about the pension entitlements is dealing with a topic that had already been raised about the three Cabinet ministers who had previously announced that they would be standing at the next election.

As for the Sara Burke piece, as I recall it was on the opinion page of Saturday’s paper. Sara Burke is a health commentator but is not, as far as I can tell, an employee of the Irish Times. Are you objecting to any non-adulatory coverage of Minister Harney’s time in charge of the health service?

Frankly, the notion that the national media are presenting a distorted view of how the general population view Minister Harney’s performance is probably correct, but not in the way you think it is.

As far as Conor Mac Liam is concerned, I think your language to describe him is frankly out of order given the personal circumstances involved.


Daragh McDowell 01.26.11 at 12:28 am

@Paddy Matthews

No, I don’t object to any non adulatory coverage of Harney – I feel, having watched it for several years and compared it to the experience of actual users of and practicioners IN the medical system to find it hugely at odds with reality or the actual problems facing the health service and biased towards Harney-bashing. Which has in turn fed the popular image of her, to the point that there was barely any sympathy for her even when she was assaulted by an Eirigi counsellor a few months back.

As for Conor Mac Liam – if you find the term ‘headbanger’ offensive, fine I’ll withdraw. I (and a lot of Irish people I know) use it to refer to someone who are on the hard-left or hard-right. But a person’s personal circumstances however tragic, does not make the platform of the political party or their own analysis of the health service any less ill-founded or ridiculous. I’m certainly sorry for his loss, that doesn’t mean his political opinions are any less insane.


Gene O'Grady 01.26.11 at 12:49 am

What is ULA? I’m fairly sure it’s not the Utah Lacrosse Association.


Daragh McDowell 01.26.11 at 12:58 am

United Left Alliance – its an umbrella for Richard Boyd Barret’s Socialist Workers Party (AKA People before Profit) and Higgin’s Socialist Party as well as a couple of (even) smaller ultra left-wing groups. The first two have traditionally hated one another in the way only Trotskyist micro-parties can manage, and Higgins is really the only one who ever made it to the Dail. They essentially gobble up the sliver of the far-left vote that finds Sinn Feinn too nationalist (or too right-wing) and will probably elect 3 TDs max. There will however be quite a few left-wing independents outside the group like Ming Flanagan, and possibly Thomas Prinlge so a far left technical group isn’t out of the question.


Glen Tomkins 01.26.11 at 1:55 am

Fanny McGhee @2

I thought politics in Louisiana was weird, but that bit about not being able to resign as an MP, until/unless you apply to be Bailiff of the three Chiltern Hundreds etc., well, they’ve got us beat dead to rights with that one.

But it does raise two questions.

Firstly, why should it matter to the ROI whether or not Her Majesty’s Govt believes that Adams has fulfilled all the legal forms for resigning as an MP? The bit about the Bailifate of etc. may matter to the UK, because they are a nation of staunch eccentrics, but why does it matter to anyone else? I could see that the ROI might have laws against people holding office in some other country becoming a TD, but why would it matter whether Adams resigned with or without being that Bailiff?

Secondly, why 1624? Was there some rash of MP resignations as James I lay dying? Or was being the Bailiff of etc. some sort of good thing, a corrupt office or other sweet deal inducement to get MPs to resign? That last possibility I would understand from Louisiana politics. We have even the England of 1624 beat on that score.

Inquiring minds want to know, and the Google wasn’t too helpful on these points.


P O'Neill 01.26.11 at 2:10 am

#39, on point 1, as I understand it, there is no legal impediment in the UK or Ireland to Gerry Adams being a MP and TD at the same time. Instead it’s from Adams’ perspective — can he credibly claim to be representing 2 constituencies at the same time, when his interest will clearly be with Louth? He can sit on the West Belfast seat until the next election, but in the meantime that leaves West Belfast without its (abstentionist) representation in London. Add to that the Blackadder stylings of the resignation procedure, and it’s more than he wants to go through.

Apparently his best way out of the Commons at this point is to show up without having sworn the Oath of Allegiance to the Queen, which seems like the way to go.


Glen Tomkins 01.26.11 at 2:50 am

Well, Louisiana politics is also understandable in Blackadder terms. Every year the state sends the seven most evil men in the kingdom, plus a bunch of also-ran, second-stringer, evil men and women, to Baton Rouge to make its laws.

This scheme of governance has yet to end well, except maybe for some of the most evil men in the kingdom, but somehow it’s what they keep repeating year after year.


P O'Neill 01.26.11 at 3:03 am

Glen, this is worth a read on your 2nd point. Among the issues for Adams is that one of the two “resignation” offices is held by the wife of a political foe.

Mrs Robinson. That’s another Louisiana style story.


Glen Tomkins 01.26.11 at 6:14 am

Well, in the Louisiana version, the name would be Robichaux, not Robinson, the genders would be reversed and the age difference would not be at all a scandal, not even if the genders were not reversed, homophobia would enhance, not hinder, the spouse’s political career, they would have met at either church or a bar, not through the younger partner’s father, there would be no question of a resignation over any aspect of this, etc. The biggest difference, though, is that you people really do not have any handle on trashiness.

Well, there’s also the fact that no one in Louisiana would go to a restaurant opened by a 19 year old. While there is some demand among the less poor and more foolish urban crowd for expensive restaurants run by middle-aged white guys, what most of us in Louisiana expect in a restaurant is cheap but excellent food and a proprietor who is an owner-chef and who’s either an old black man, or an old white woman with two first names. No room in this picture for 19 year-olds. You don’t trust a 19 year old to know enough about something as important as eating.

There’s that, but the single biggest difference is the trashiness deficit. All three of the principals are so well-bred and white bread that this would not be thought nearly entertaining enough behavior coming from our politicians to be worthy of notice. We’re governed by a dictatorship of the Lumpenproletariat in Louisiana, and these people are just not lumpen enough to make it on our bread and circuses circuit.

The one element in the story that I did find strongly reminiscent was the bit about her asking back $8,000 out of the $80,000 in order to give it to the church. That touch did give me a momentary pang of nostalgia. Tithing out of hush money, now that might get you elected in Louisiana if that story got around.

Thanks for the fact sheet. Apparently it wasn’t this dodge with the Stewardships that was invented in 1624, it was the law forbidding resignation from Parliament that passed that year. Now, instead of just going back and repealing that categorical rule after it became clear that it was unrealistic, unworkable and undesirable, as normal people might have done, the English solution was this dodge with the Stewardships, made possible by this other equally categorical rule against holding a royal office while serving as an MP. Brilliant! It’s like one of those schemes that Koko comes up with. I hadn’t realized that there was quite so much of transcription about the Mikado.


Sev 01.26.11 at 6:35 am

Daragh McDowell 01.25.11 at 5:23 pm
“Henry, not to diminish what is a very strong attempt to explain the virtually unexplainable, might I humbly suggest that this 15 second video just about sums up how Irish politics works as well as how we got to this woeful state.”

So the Irish pol is a “big man redistributor chief?” If so, would seem to be a positive for FF.


Daragh McDowell 01.26.11 at 9:57 am


Just so. Except now the chief has nothing to redistribute.


Alex 01.26.11 at 10:28 am

The problem with showing up in the Commons without taking the oath is that they might not expel him. In fact, it’s really hard to get expelled without doing anything genuinely criminal – you need at least a year’s imprisonment to be expelled automatically. Being a drama queen isn’t actually grounds for expulsion from parliament, the place would be deserted…


Ray 01.26.11 at 10:40 am

So, to summarize
Harney is largely hated, the PDs were wiped out in the last election (and were never actually popular, which makes the sneering about a far left technical group a bit pathetic), but the fact that media coverage (produced, in many cases, by people strongly associated with the PDs) was unfailingly respectful to their low tax, low public spending policies is evidence of a” media establishment that was always hugely hostile to the PDs”.

Michael McDowell seemed to enjoy being disliked, Daragh seems to prefer being mocked.


Daragh McDowell 01.26.11 at 10:43 am

(and were never actually popular, which makes the sneering about a far left technical group a bit pathetic)

Except at their first election when they became the third largest party in the state. Or when Des O’Malley and Mary Harney were both the most popular leaders in the state. Or, or, or….

Bored now.


Ray 01.26.11 at 10:55 am

1987 was the PD’s high watermark, when with massive publicity, five sitting TDs, and no record to defend, they got an enormous 12% of the vote. Two years later they got 5.5%, and that was the last time their vote share was over 5%.


Alastair McKinstry 01.26.11 at 11:10 am

It is quite possible that opinion polls measuring support for the party in general may be substantially estimating voters’ willingness to vote for specific TDs.



’d honestly be surprised to see Fianna Fáil get much less than 25% of the vote, on the back of this alone.

A month or so ago, I’d have agreed. However it appears to have passed an important threshold, and is in extreme disarray on the ground: it not only has no leader, it has no director of elections, no money and no candidates chosen in many areas.

Even where it has, its strategy is in disarray. Its previous strengths are now its weaknesses, in that its vote is very geographically dispersed. Its still running 2 or 3 candidates in constituencies where it can only hope to get 1. In previous years they would hoover up votes locally due to clientelist politics, and transfer. Now, they will fail to get half a quota first preferences, and fail to transfer to each other. To fix this would take good strategic planning. None of this is happening.

Another interesting point is the nature of the next Dail. At current numbers, about 15 FG old-hands are retiring: many seat-warmers who were kept on past retirement because they were known names to the voters. They can safely retire and new FG candidates will be elected in their place. But its possible that 40 out of 65 or so FG TDs in the new Dail will be freshers. Interesting to see how that affects the party’s identity, given that its previous identity as “anti-FF” ceases. It may look to the future to consolidate its position as the centre-right party-of-government in the future, happy to stand against an uncoordinated left.

The other is, if SF are the main opposition party, with FF in array (and not in a position to criticize an economic situation they were mostly responsible for), Joe Higgins can become the effective leader of the opposition. Gerry Adams has been so economically illiterate he’s a liability for SF. And while the ULA in general have been incoherent and too avowedly marxist for most people, he has been landing the punches and accurate in his analyses. I’m expecting the real dust-up in this election is between Labour and the socialists.


P O'Neill 01.26.11 at 12:47 pm

#33, Paddy, I bow before your predictive powers:

EOGHAN HARRIS (Ind) said he would be voting for Fine Gael because he wished to vote for authority. He went on to deplore the “incontinent manner” in which that party and Labour had behaved in ensuring the Finance Bill was rushed through the Oireachtas.

The man is shameless. I had heard his most dominant current rage is against Micheal Martin over his Gaza visit and general tilt of Iveagh House when he was Minister, but there he goes again.


Alex 01.26.11 at 4:20 pm


Paddy Matthews 01.26.11 at 6:04 pm

EOGHAN HARRIS (Ind) said he would be voting for Fine Gael because he wished to vote for authority.

The resemblance is uncanny.

If you see Twink, run like hell.


DOCM 01.26.11 at 8:12 pm

It is impossible to make a sensible comment on an initial contribution that shows little understanding of the real dynamic of Irish politics. It should, nevertheless, not be that difficult for an American commentator to understand. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are political movements that emerged after a civil war about an issue which has not yet been resolved viz. the partition of the island of Ireland.

As one commentator put it (I cannot recall which), at the time (1922) of the talks with the UK government to establish a truce, the choice was between continued revolution and property and, while Fine Gael chose property (i.e. acceptance of Partition), Fianna Fáil, under De Valera, chose continued revolution (at least until 1932 when De Valera won a national election and recognised reality).

If the argument is advanced that all of this is in the dim and distant past, please address the conundrum of why it is acceptable for Sinn Féin (the inheritor of those that chose continued revolution) to be part of a government in a power-sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland but not for its participation in government in the Republic of Ireland where the idea is still anathema!

The question now posed with regard to the forthcoming general election is twofold (i) has this historical mould now been broken and (ii) if so, what will be the consequence?


Henry 01.26.11 at 8:59 pm

DOCM – as a bit of sincerely meant advice, I’d suggest you tone down the pomposity, passive voice constructions as cod-signals of authority, and suggestions that I’m an “American commentator” who doesn’t know what I’m talking about. I’m as Irish as they come, and quite well grounded in the history of the Civil War (having had relatives on both sides) and the politics of Ireland in the 1920’s and 1930s, My MA thesis, as it happens, was on the organization of Cumann na nGaedheal, and I can testify from having pored through the records that neither it nor Fine Gael could ever plausibly have been identified as “political movements.” The lack of such a political movement (with the unfortunate exception of the Blueshirts), or indeed of an organized political party, was what doomed it to opposition for so long.

I do think that the question you raise is an interesting one, and would be happy to see people debate it. I don’t, however, think for a moment that it is the only one worth talking about, and presenting it as such is more likely to antagonize potential interlocutors than tempt them to conversation.


DOCM 01.26.11 at 10:20 pm

My apologies for attributing a mistaken nationality to you. As for the rest, instead of criticising the tone of my contribution and my manner of framing it, I suggest that you stick to the points made by me.

Your piece is, in my opinion, fundamentally inaccurate – especially to a non-Irish audience – because it seeks to apply to a unique Irish situation an analysis anchored in comparison with other countries and in their experience of, for want of a better word, left-right political formations. (This is simply a point of view, not intended to be taken any other way).

As to having relatives on both sides in the civil war, join the club!

That political loyalties are stilll anchored in that experience in all areas of Ireland (except possibly Dublin), I have not the slightest doubt. The main question for the forthcoming elelctions is, and remains: has their grip been broken by the economic crisis? (Such a statement does not preclude the consideration of other issues).


sonofstan 01.26.11 at 11:04 pm


If Fintan really is the political editor of the IT, why on earth would he let a right-wing nutjob like you ‘write for it occasionally’?


Daragh McDowell 01.26.11 at 11:55 pm


You have no idea of my politics. I’d be a Bernie Sanders Democrat most likely in the US. I’m more right of centre in the Irish pol establishment. But to answer your question, because he’s genuinely open-minded and interested in debate, unlike you.


I think you’ve almost hit the issue here. Basically when I try to explain the Irish system to outisders these days I’ve settled on describing FF and FG as essentially political machines in their purest form, stripped largely of overt ideology and held together through clan and to a lesser extent class loyalty and pure patronage. The main difference is that FF were simply better at it.

FF is suffering from a) having been exposed as demonstrably incompetent to the point that even its most loyal adherents can’t ignore it, b) having a leadership cadre that has progressively lost touch with the grass-roots and c) has been so consumed by the unfolding economic catastrophe it has been unable to attend to keeping the political machine well greased, and is now going into an election in deep disarray. Martin’s leadership challenge came now because there is a genuine fear of electoral annihilation for the soldiers, otherwise he would have waited til Cowen faced the inevitable drubbing himself, and rebuilt from opposition. Whether he can save FF from destruction remains to be seen.

FG’s campaign so far has been hugely lacklustre and has been mainly focused on keeping Enda Kenny, who runs a distant second in every poll on the preferred Taoiseach question, out of the public eye. They will win the most seats, but in reality they should be in a position to form a single party government with a comfortable majority given how favourable the political situation is.

The real story is that polls are now showing over 50% voting for something other than the ‘Civil War’ parties and we’re beginning to see (for the umpteenth time I know) the beginnings of a ‘proper’ left-right divide. I still think FF may be dealt an absolutely fatal blow this election, but FG won’t be too far behind given that Kenny’s main qualification, much like Cowen’s, for the tob job is having been born the son of an FG TD. The real change will probably happen at the next election.


sonofstan 01.27.11 at 1:06 am

@ Daragh
It would be a little galling for you if I really had no idea of your politics given your occasional presence as a commentator in ‘the paper of record’ – I’m more interested in knowing how you know that I’m not ‘genuinely openminded and interested in debate?’ If it was in calling you ‘a nutjob’ it was just repayment in kind for your ULA Headbanger comment. I’m at a loss as to why the likes of you see fit to portray the left as lunatic, when it’s your kind whose lunacy has us in the pickle ……


nick s 01.27.11 at 1:13 am

The main question for the forthcoming elelctions is, and remains: has their grip been broken by the economic crisis?

If the polls bear out, perhaps the question becomes whether historians might backdate the unanchoring of the old party loyalties to the boom, not the bust: that’s to say, FF remained the default party of government during the Tiger years, but for reasons somewhat different from those that kept it in charge in the era of Haughey and previous. That’s a narrative — perhaps an excessively teleological one — in which the PDs get to play Moses, never able to set foot in the promised land.


DOCM 01.27.11 at 11:04 am

@ Daragh McDowell and Nick S

At least as far as an American audience is concerned, I tend to use a not so fanciful comparison between the political systems of the USA and the AUCI (Almost United Counties of Ireland).

After all, we have (i) an electorate that simply does not comprehend a dialogue couched in left-right terms (think Democrat v Republican) (ii) a system of primaries (multi-seat constituencies coupled with proportional representation) pitting politicians from the same parties against one another (iii) intense local loyalty at the county (state) level (iv) acceptance of the idea of the use of influence (“pull”) at the local level to the detriment of any concept of national interest resulting in (v) pork-barrel politics (think Lowry and Healy-Rae) (vi) an intense suspicion of government (apart from the misconception that its job to hand out largesse – especially jobs for the boys and associated pensions – without any need to raise taxes to fund it) (vii) a dysfunctional health service. I could go on. Suffice to say that Harney was right when she opined that Ireland was nearer to Boston than Berlin.

My own guess would be that the outcome of the election will be a much depleted Fianna Fáil, major gains for Sinn Féin (if they can hide Gerry Adams somewhere) and an increased number of independents (i.e. a fragmented opposition) with a Fine Gael/Labour Coalition with a substantial majority but divided on major issues (i.e. a fragmented government).

Luckily, the major decisions have been taken out of the hands of Irish politicians and the country’s path to salvation is being guided – and not very well – by the IMF/EU.

cf. the Greek experience. At least they have the sunshine.


Polydamas 01.27.11 at 7:04 pm

My guess would be that the FF vote will fall unevenly, depending on the type of constituency. The family connections and clientelist systems mentioned in the post and by other commenters will be stronger in rural areas and among older voters, but I would imagine that most FF-tending voters in Dublin and the commuter towns around it, particularly those under 40, have weaker links to the TDs on their ballots. Despite living in Dublin for 10 years, I can’t remember the names of the candidates I voted for in the last election, or even the title of the constituency I lived in, but I know exactly who I’d vote for and against in my home town in Tipperary. Also, all politics being tribal, I can see many FF voters staying at home rather than voting for FG.

As a side note, presuming that FG come out of the election as the biggest party, with a much increased Labour in second, I wonder how the coalition politics would play out. Agreement between the two would be difficult, and it would be interesting if the seat arithmetic allowed for a Labour led government in partnership with a rump FF. Not straight-away, obviously, but in 2 or 3 years time, if the stigma has started to wash off FF a little, and the government’s honeymoon period is over. Vanity and frustration have caused stranger alliances. Perhaps an unlikely scenario, but not impossible.


William Sjostrom 01.27.11 at 7:58 pm

I won’t guess the outcome of the upcoming election (beyond sharing the conventional wisdom that the next government will be a Fine Gael-Labour coalition), but I suspect that FF’s long term prospects are being underestimated. I know quite a few Fianna Failer, who are saying quietly that they intend to spoil their ballots. That suggests to me serious anger with Cowen and Lenihan, but not any intention of long term abandonment.
I was, by the way, planning to give FF my second preference after FG, just because I think of the alternatives as even worse, but now that Michael Martin is the new head of FF, maybe I will go for Labour. Sigh.


James Conran 01.28.11 at 6:30 pm

‘…preferences are likely to have a very important role indeed in determining outcomes in this election…”

Very important, to be sure. But it’s worth not exaggerating this importance – I think roughly 80% of seats typically end up the same as they would if they didn’t bother doing anything with 2nd etc. preferences, i.e. 80% of the time the top 3/4/5 candidates by first preference are elected in a 3/4/5 seater.

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