...an American tries to make
sense of it.
Toss the Bums
...which is easier than understanding Florida elections.
Irish political system is a parliamentary democracy. That is, people vote
for their politicians, and can, in the immortal phrase, "toss the bums
out." So issues of key national importance are carefully discussed, then
mostly ignored. The really important stuff is scandal and rumour. Local issues
are always important. You want to jump to the head of some government waiting
list for housing? Contact your local politicians. You have a problem with
local garbage collection, or potholes? Contact you know who.
Then the politicians will voice their concerns,
put in the good word, bluster and rhapsodize. And the real powers-that-be
in Ireland just might deign to do what's being asked. Under the Irish system,
most politicians have almost no power save that of the bully pulpit - and
knowing the right people.
Take local government first. Local government
is overwhelmingly financed by the national government. Local governments which
fail to agree a balanced budget can even be disbanded by officials from the
Department of the Environment. Even if all local councillors vote one way
on an issue, the county or city manager is under no obligation to follow their
advice. So, real power resides totally in the hands of an appointed official
who is chosen not by the citizens of a county, but by an independent, civil
service dominated committee.
Of course, in reality, no one reaches the exalted
heights of local government manager without learning to pay close attention
to the desires and needs of the local representatives. It isn't pure democracy,
but it works. A major change in the funding of local government became law
in early 1997. It was supposed to give local councillors much more say and
power in fiscal matters. It didn't really work that way.
National Uber Alles
At the national level, all power, and I mean
ALL!! power resides with the cabinet of 14 ministers who run Ireland. Each
of these 14 ministers rules a personal fief, or department, and deals daily
with issues within his or her area of concern. Important matters are discussed
with cabinet colleagues, a vote is taken, and the majority decision becomes
How? That majority decision of the cabinet
is put to a vote in the Irish parliament, or Dail. Which always, always votes
in agreement with the ministers. And why do the elected representatives of
the people always agree with the ministers? Because the ministers that form
the government come from parties holding a majority of seats in the Dail.
You don't get to be a minister unless your party and its allies can enforce
its will. You've got to have the votes in the Parliament. When you don't because
some of your faithful colleagues stab you in the back, or an allied party
can't stomach your politics anymore, the government falls. A new election
is called. All the politicians lose their jobs until the people vote them
back into office or obscurity.
No one likes losing their job. So, colleagues
rarely vote against the decisions of the 14 ministers. When they turn their
back on the party and vote their own way, it's said that they have "resigned
the whip." Good image, that. Obey the hand that holds the whip, vote
with your party, and all goes well. At least till your party gets tossed out
of office by upset voters. Elections must take place at least once every five
A very powerful group of the highest bureaucrats
in each of the 14 ministries also holds tremendous power. So does a
circle of multi-millionaires. But, that's about it. It's an all powerful "golden
circle" that really rules the country. But, ultimately, the politicians'
jobs are on the line so, as in any democracy, they listen. Posture, make pronouncements,
dance around the issues. But they do listen. And count votes.
Most of the parties are very similar. That's
why one recent government was formed with the furthest left party, a slightly left of center party and a strongly right
of center party. It shows the remarkable homogeneity of the Irish populace
- even with the likes of Americans like me and other "aliens" dotting
the countryside. The fuss and bother of Irish politics signifies, many people
feel, little more than an attempt by one party or another to get themselves
into a position to enjoy the "Mercs and Perks" that come with high
are currently four parties represented in the Dail, or Parliament. The biggest
used to be Fianna Fail,
a right of center party with about 40% of the popular vote (41.6% in 2007). But, in the last election in early 2011, Fianna Fail's vote disappeared. These are the guys who so mismanaged everything! that the IMF and European Central Bank had to be called in to bail out the nation of Ireland. The party's vote dropped to 17.4pc. This party grew
out of the Civil War which split Ireland in the early 1920's. Fianna Fail
were basically the people who opposed ceding the 6 counties of Ulster to the
British in return for freedom for the remaining 26 counties. Once in power,
however, Fianna Fail stood firmly with democracy and disarmed dissident IRA
groups. The dominant party in Ireland since its founding until 2011, they were only rarely
out of power. Well, they're down and out now.
biggest party, with about 36.1% of the vote (27.3% in 2007), is Fine
Gael. Fine Gael started as the supporters of the Free State, and in modern
times they have been a strong rural force, though their appeal is urban as
well. Like Fianna Fail it is a center-right party. The key attraction of Fine Gael to many voters is simply that they are not Fianna Fail. Fine Gael had a titanically awful election in 2002, dropping to their lowest support in modern times. But, 2007 marked a comeback and they triumphed in 2011 as a responsible alternative to the Fianna Failures as they became known.
The second biggest party is Labour,
which was the first party that did not grow out of the Civil War strife. As
its name imples, Labour has been the most important center-left party, and
polls somewhere between 10 and 20% (10.1% in 2007). In 1998 the Democratic Left party joined
labour to strengthen the center-left position. In 2007, labour held 20 seats - just about exactly where they stood 5 years earlier. And in the 2011 election, they received 19.4% of the vote.
The Minor Parties
Party approached politics from an environmental viewpoint. They grew
quickly and they led the opposition to the Nice Treaty and the Iraq
war. The party did very well in the 2002 election, tripling their number of
Dail deputies to 6.They inched up another 1% of first preference votes in 2007 to 4.7%. They were part of the disastrous coalition government which brought in the IMF and bailout and the voters punished them by returning not a single representative to the Dail. The party garnered a 1.8pc vote and now has not a single elected representative in government anywhere in the country. After licking their wounds, they are making noises again, but it will be a looooonnnnnng time before voters forgive them their betrayal of, well, everything.
Fein used to be the political arm of the IRA. With peace in the north, the party has dropped the guns and seeks an electoral mandate. They get it in the North where they dominate the Catholic/Republican/Nationalist vote. In the south, Sinn Fein is actively
aiming for the disenfranchised voters - the unemployed and those feeling powerless.
The youth vote is another big target of Sinn Fein organizers. In 1997 Sinn Fein elected their
first sitting Dail representative since the 1950's. In 2002, they surprised everyone with their organization and pulled a respectable vote. They looked on target to achieve 12 seats in the 2007 election. Nope. The party's northern leadership looked out of place and out of touch. The result in 2007 - 4 seats, down on their previous representation.
Finally, there are several independents. One
fellow elected to the Dail in the 1997 elections ran on a ticket of better
television reception. Others champion key local problems like fewer potholes.
Until the election of 2011, the entire swath of so called independents were really Fianna Fail
members who ran after the party refused them spots on the local tickets. Running
as independents they showed up the official Fianna Fail guys who tried to
shove them into the outer darkness. All of them dependably votde with Fianna
Fail. They were as independent as a yo-yo on a string. In 2007, independents received 6.7% of first preference votes throughout the state, but elected a total of 5 of their number. Four of the five are "gene pool" Fianna Fail, the other is a Fine Gael'er kicked out for corruption. (Always a good vote getting strategy in Ireland.) In 2011, independents garnered a huge 15.2% of the vote and formed a working group in the Dail to gain more speaking time.
PR stands for Proportional Representation,
which is the voting system here. It's a complicated system indeed. The country
is divided into constituencies, which mostly follow county or city boundaries.
Each constituency elects 3 to 5 parliamentary representatives.
How? Each voter fills out his or her ballot
by noting their first choice, second choice candidate, and so on down to 14th
or 18th position. When the votes are counted, a third to a fifth of the votes
cast must name a candidate as choice number 1. That person(s) is elected.
But what about the other unfilled positions? All the ballots of the winning
candidates are recounted and the voters' second choice is noted. Then a percentage
of those votes are given to any candidates still in the field. Meantime the
lowest vote candidates are dropped and their ballots are redistributed to
the second choice candidates on those ballots. Complicated, no?
Eventually, more and more last place candidates
have their ballots redistributed and ever more representatives are elected.
A great number of elections hinge on voters' fifth and sixth choices, a fact
blithely ignored by many voters who concentrate only on their top choices.
I've heard of one fellow who perversely votes for the least likely candidates just so his
vote will be redistributed again and again!
The result is that parties like the Greens
and Sinn Fein do manage to get representation in the Dail, despite representing
small minorities of the total electorate. The elected representative might
be everyone's 6th choice, but often that is enough to get in.
Re-reading the above paragraphs reveals a rather
cynical view of Irish politics. Actually, the system works well and perhaps
that hasn't been conveyed clearly. Ireland is a very personal place. Everyone
knows everyone else, or their cousin. So politics is a matter of rubbing elbows,
attending pub meetings, showing up at funerals and weddings, and all the person-t- person style of life that makes Ireland such an attractive place to live.
Despite problems, occasional crookedness, centralised
power - Ireland is a very healthy democracy where citizens can make their
needs known and generally expect those needs to be met in a fair manner. It
ain't the American way - but it works.
The Next Election
It's a comin! An election must take place within a five year period. The parties in control of government can call an election sooner if the polls are going their way or if a government falls (as happened in 2011 after the bailout), but in general, general elections generally take place at five year intervals.
Who Can Vote?
- Irish citizens can vote in every election and referendum.
- British citizens may vote at Dáil, European and local elections (not constitutional referenda).
- Other EU citizens may vote at European and local elections.
- Non-EU citizens can vote at local elections only.
To be eligible to be included in the Register of Electors, you must:
- Be at least 18 years of age on the day the Register comes into force (15 February)
- Have been ordinarily resident in the State on 1 September in the year preceding the coming into force of the Register.
Irish citizens living abroad cannot vote in an election or referendum here in Ireland with the exception of Irish diplomats and their spouses who are on duty abroad.
Background Articles from the Newsletter
The 2011 Election
The Irish election has taken place. And the result...
Fianna Fail, the political party that has ruled Ireland for the better part of 80 years, has been decimated.
No, that's not right. A Roman legion which suffered decimation stood at attention, eyes frontward. Officers passed behind the line and pushed forward every tenth man. That poor fellow was beaten to death by his mess mates.
No Fianna Failures have picked up their cudgels to bash their colleagues. But, they didn't have to. The voters did the pummelling for them. And the voters didn't stop with every tenth Failure. Fianna Fail lost roughly 75pc of their Dail/Parliament seats.
The question is whether the Failures will live on. The survivors say yes, but the analysts wonder. The brand is toxic. The party has huge debts, its low vote of 17.4pc – down from a rock solid 40pc - will reduce considerably any public monies. Worst of all, their only strong base are voters aged 65 and over. A few years will see these supporters - how to put this gently - voting for angelic representatives.
And the Poodles
The Green Party supported the incompetent and wildly immoral decisions of Fianna Fail during the past three years. Pull their leash and the Green poodles obediently licked their master's hand.
The party complained that they were taking stick for "making the hard decisions." Actually, they were punished for making the wrong decisions.
Well, the Greens are history now. Gone. Swept clear – not a single representative left.
The Winners and New Champions
Fine Gael, the perennial also-rans of Irish politics, have catapulted into first place. They didn't quite elect a clear majority, so it's almost certain they will form a coalition government with Labour.
Labour, till the revolution, was always the third largest party. Now they are second.
The share of first preference votes was: Fine Gael 36.1 per cent, Labour 19.4 per cent, Fianna Fáil 17.4 per cent, Sinn Fein 9.9 per cent, Independents 15.2 per cent and Green Party 1.8 per cent.
Everyone now agrees that the most underrated politician of the past decade has been Enda Kenny, leader of Fine Gael. Enda led his party out of the wilderness unto the promised land and he will be Taoiseach/Chief of Ireland.
HOW'S YOUR FATHER - Politics as Practised by Fianna Fail
What do you make of this?
"This day represents the conclusion of the type of politics practiced by (Fianna Fail) - cronyism, sleeveen politics, digouts, nods and winks, how's your father."
Clearly, the speaker is talking English, but not as you or I understand it. What the heck does he mean?
Enda Kenny, who became Taoiseach/Chief of Ireland in 2011, made this statement on the day the International Monetary Fund came to Dublin. In 10 words, he described the style of Irish politics that brought the nation to its knees. As we head toward an election, it's worth undertanding how the game has been played.
Fianna Fail - This political party has dominated Irish politics for more than 80 years and ruined the nation over the past three.
Cronyism - This part, at least, is clear. Scratch my back and I'll rub your tummy. In practice, a few dozen bankers, civil service muck-a-mucks, developers and politicians served as directors of the same companies and banks and government commissions. Serve on one, serve on dozens. They are the Golden Circle and they carved the fatted Tiger.
Sleeveen Politics - Sleeveen is an Irish word meaning sly, cunning, crafty and calculating. An example? Former Taoiseach/Prime Minister Bertie Ahern used to be his party's treasurer. His boss at the time, Taoiseach Charlie Haughey, would regularly dip into party funds to buy personal luxuries. But, while he signed the cheques, Bertie never wrote in the amount or payee. He gave the blank cheques to Charlie who filled in the necessaries. When a tribunal questioned Bertie about this unusual arrangement, Bertie claimed angelic innocence. He was just following orders and assumed the money was spent on party affairs. No wonder Charlie Haughey called Bertie “the most cunning and slyest of them all”. A sleeveen.
Digouts - Bertie Ahern, again, made this term infamous. While Minister of Finance, he and his wife separated. Bertie approached his friends for a "digout". Bertie banked many tens of thousands of euro and the friends were rewarded with well paid directorships in semi-state companies. The tangled web of Bertie's personal finances has never been entirely disentangled even by a well resourced government tribunal.
Nods and Winks - You know what's being said, even though no one says it. As in, 'Our shopping centre development firm wants to hire you, Mr. Big, as a "consultant" on Dublin planning procedures.'
How's Your Father - Your granddad dies? Count on an Irish politician to shake hands. Need to get a family member into a state funded old age home, or up the hospital queue, or require help sorting out the pension? You know who to contact.
It was that good Irish politician, Tip O'Neill, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, who famously said, "All politics is local." He might well have phrased that same statement as "How's your father?"
A Nation of Scholars - Election 2007
No scholar of arcane lore studies mystical scribblings more deeply than the “talleymen.” These are the political junkies from each party who scrutinize the paper ballots as they tumble from the election boxes.
As each new box is opened, the talleymen keep a running count of the votes. A good talleyman can tell you the exact vote count from a parish, and if he knows the area well enough, he can almost break the vote down by family.
“We’re down 4 votes in Kilgobinet Parish. Ah, now wouldn’t that be Mrs. Murphy and her family who are on vacation…”
Of course, there are so many new houses and families and anonymous subdivisions that I’m exaggerating. Barely.
Anyway – the final count with 83 representatives of 165 needed to form a government
- Fianna Fail – 78 seats (41.6pc)
- Fine Gael – 51 seats (27.3pc)
- Labour – 20 seats (10.1pc)
- Sinn Fein – 4 seats (6.9pc)
- Greens – 6 seats (4.7pc)
- Progressive Democrats – 2 seats (2.7pc)
- Independents – 5 seats (6.7pc)
Fianna Fail first swept into power about the time most families bought their very first radio. And, here they still are at the top of the heap. No other party has dominated the polls anywhere else on this planet for so long. This marks six straight wins for the party. Bertie Ahern will now be the “grandfather” of the European Union, in power for longer than any other leader of the 27 nations.
A Mood for Change - Election 2007
How did the lads do it?
Well, Bertie’s Team (the actual election slogan) are blessed with an opposition that just doesn’t ignite sparks. Oh, their policies are sound, they say the things people want to hear. But, the leader of the second party, Enda Kenny, can’t seem to talk except in sound bites. He just doesn’t connect the way Bertie does.
Enda and all the opposition parties kept telling us that there was a mood for change. People wanted change.
Unfortunately for Enda, the kind of change they want is the jingly kind in their pockets. And, after a decade of economic prosperity under Fianna Fail, it turned out to be the economy, stupid.
Bertie and bags of the jangly - Election 2007.
The 2002 Election
'CRY HAVOC!' AND LET
SLIP THE DOGS OF WAR (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar Act 3, Sc.1)
Poor Michael Noonan! The
leader of the second largest political party in Ireland witnessed the mashing
of his own legions during the national elections. Not since the founding of
the Republic has a party taken such a huge beating at the polls.
Fine Gael lost 23 of its
54 parliamentary seats. And, it was the highest profile Fine Gael deputies
who took the brunt of the hit. While Noonan didn't exactly cry havoc, he did
admit that the results were worse than his worst fears. Fine Gael's representation
in Dublin dropped from 12 to 3 deputies, making it only the fifth largest
party in the capital city.
Labour, the third largest
party, miraculously came through the election with an extra seat or two. This
was thanks to the Irish system of proportional representation where voters'
fourth and fifth choices ultimately elect some of the candidates. But, Labour's
basic vote - those who chose a labour candidate as their first choice preference
- has collapsed in half over the past decade.
By late 2005, Fine Gael and Labour were both in stronger positions. Several by-elections (held when someone dies in office or has to resign for health reasons) have swung their way. These two leading opposition parties will probably head into the 2007 election as a united ticket, pledged to work together to form a new government.
O FOR A MUSE OF FIRE! (Prologue to Shakespeare's Henry V)
Up from the depths, now
we "ascend the brightest heaven of invention, A kingdom for a stage...."
The winner, and still
champeeeen, is Bertie Ahern and his Fianna Fail party. This has been the dominant
and ruling party in Ireland for the better part of 75 years. The only comparable
record has been the unbroken rule of Mexico's PRI party till Vincente Fox's
victory a few years ago. Even Fidel might envy the party's long ascendancy.
Bertie - the moniker proclaims
'man of the people' - led his 'Soldiers of Destiny' to a near majority. They're
just two votes shy of the magic mark. Basically, the Irish nation voted for
more of the same - low tax levels, prosperity and a likeable and approachable
Still, the endless revelations
of corruption touched a nerve. And the Progressive Democrats, the party which
has partnered with Bertie for the past five years, got a huge vote after they
warned everyone that Fianna Fail might actually get a majority and rule unchecked.
The PD's argument was that the quote opposition unquote of Labour and Fine
Gael was useless and that we needed someone on the inside to keep Fianna Fail's
worst excesses in check.
Since this was the truth
people voted for them in droves. Compare this to the typical blather of promises
and economic statistics offered up by the so called opposition.
The PD's had a great election!
Their first preference votes actually dropped a few percent, but they were
everyone's second choice. In Ireland, that ends up electing people and the
party rose from 4 seats to eight.
There was a finely choreographed
mating dance, and then the PD's and Fianna Fail married for another five years,
remaining "monarchs to behold the swelling scene!"
As of 2006, the two parties continue to work together. The PD's leader, Mary Harney, has taken up the poisoned chalice of the Health ministry and the always outspoken Minister of Justice is also a PD. Though Fianna Fail has taken a hit in several by-elections and in the polls, their hard core support of 32% is holding steady. Under the Proportional Representation scheme, this guarantees them the pole position in Irish politics.
A TERRIBLE BEAUTY IS
BORN (William Butler Yeats, Easter 1916)
The other winners in 2002 were
the Greens and Sinn Fein. The Greens tripled their first preference votes.
There are now 6 Green representatives, up from two, and this is a huge breakthrough
for the party. They have a real presence now.
Sinn Fein, the politically
acceptable face of the IRA, doubled their vote and jumped from one deputy
to five. This is the story that made the headlines internationally. Sinn Fein
deliberately targeted the unrepresented underclass. They earned a lot of votes
by taking on drug dealers in poor housing estates and threatening mayhem.
They earned another set of votes because everyone knows these guys (and gals)
stand for real change - they're not going to sell out for a fancy Mercedes.
All their new deputies vowed to take a standard industrial wage (31,000 euro)
and donate the other two thirds of their salaries to further organisational
As of 2006, the Greens are basically holding steady. But Sinn Fein continues to make strides. With the announced end of the IRA campaign of violence in the North, and the party's increasing presence in communities left behind by the Celtic Tiger, Sinn Fein looks ever more formidable. In the 2003 European elections, their media savvy campaign succeeded in electing a European MEP (Member of the European Parliament) - a bright, non-threatening young woman.