Ireland’s election produced very much the expected result, with the governing Fianna Fáil party — blamed for the country’s recent financial woes — sustaining the heaviest defeat in its history and losing about three-quarters of its seats.
But coverage of Irish politics — even in countries such as Australia, where many have Irish ancestry — has always been hampered by two things: its exotic electoral system and its exotic party system.
The electoral system shouldn’t be a problem for Australians, since it’s basically Tasmania. Tasmania elects its lower house from five electorates with five members each, by proportional representation; Ireland, with a similar area but nearly 10 times the population density, has 43 electorates with at most five members each (a number have only three or four) and the same voting system (known internationally as the single transferable vote, or STV).
In Tasmania, smaller electorates are a recent innovation, introduced in the 1990s to try to sideline the Greens; the state will return to seven-member electorates at the next election. But Ireland seems to have no such concerns — there are still 17 three-member electorates, where the quota for election is as high as 25%.
Despite that, regional variations balance out to produce a generally proportional result. Here are the provisional figures from the weekend:
The largest party, Fine Gael, will be over-represented, but not nearly as much as it would be in a system of single-member districts. If Ireland had the same electoral system as Britain or Canada, Fine Gael would almost certainly have won a substantial majority in its own right; now it will have to form a coalition, presumably with its long-time ally the Labour Party.
Ireland’s party system, on the other hand, is genuinely odd. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are separated not by their class basis or by economic or social policy, but by their positions on the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921 and consequent civil war of 1922. Fine Gael is the descendant of the pro-treaty forces who accepted the gradual path to Irish sovereignty; Fianna Fáil represents the anti-treaty forces, who lost the civil war but have dominated Irish politics since the 1930s.
Categorising this in left-right terms, as commentators like to try to do, is fraught with difficulty. Fianna Fáil is traditionally more nationalist and pro-Catholic, but also more interventionist on economic policy. Fine Gael tends more to liberal internationalism and anti-clericalism (hence its relationship with Labour), but is also seen as more pro-business and sits with the centre-right in the European parliament.
In recent years Fianna Fáil has identified itself more with pro-market policies, but this strategy came to grief with the financial crisis. The middle-class vote has swung strongly back to Fine Gael; Labour, with its best result ever, has consolidated the urban working-class vote, and Sinn Féin, whose vote also increased sharply, has become the more natural home for the nationalist vote.
It looks as if Fianna Fáil could be squeezed out, and Labour may eventually replace it as the main rival to Fine Gael. But not too much should be read into one election; parties often come back from near-death experiences (Canada’s Conservatives are an obvious example), and Ireland’s electoral system makes it difficult for a party to be wiped out (although the Greens have managed it this time around).
It’s also worth remembering that anachronistic party systems often have a remarkable capacity for survival: witness Australia’s, still based on the class struggles of a century ago. Maybe we shouldn’t be quite so sceptical about Ireland.