The general election of November 1982, the third within 18 months, was the recent high water mark for the “two and a half party” system in Irish politics. Between them, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael won 87.4% of the vote. The “half party”, Labour, won 9.6%. The three “traditional” parties’ vote share of 97% yielded them 161 of the 166 Dáil seats. The Workers’ Party won 2 seats. Three Independents: Neil Blaney, Tony Gregory and John O’Connell, took the rest.
In this year’s election, the combined vote share of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour edged just above 47%. Altogether, 7 parties secured 5 seats or more in the 160 seat Dáil. The election delivered 20 TD’s under the general heading of “Independents and Others”.
So, fragmentation of the elected political spectrum has occurred at two levels. First, there are more parties. Second, there are more independents. But the overall trend of fragmentation since 1982 has not been an even upward trajectory for either category.
The Workers’ Party metamorphosed into Democratic Left and was eventually folded into Labour. In 1987, the Progressive Democrats (PDs) burst onto the scene, winning 14 seats at their first election. They are now extinct. The first Green TD was elected in 1989. The party inched forward to 6 seats in 2002 and 2007 before disappearing from the Dáil in 2011, making a tentative return with 2 seats in 2016. The first Sinn Féin TD (Caoimhghin Ó Caoláin) was elected in 1997. As recently as 2007, that party had still only 4 seats.
The 2007 election was the last hurrah of the old order. Between them, the “two and a half parties” won 79% of the vote and 148 of the 166 seats on offer. Bertie Ahern’s Fianna Fáil won 77 of them, putting together a secure coalition government with the 6 Greens and the PD “rump” of 2 TDs. That election also saw the defeat of the Dáil’s sole Socialist TD (assuming one discounts Mr. Ahern’s claim to that label), Joe Higgins, after a solitary decade in the Dáil.
However, Mr. Higgins was back in the first post-crash election of 2011 as one of 5 TDs elected under the United Left Alliance banner. Although Fianna Fáil’s vote collapsed from 41.6% in 2007 to 17.1%, most of that went to Fine Gael and Labour; the three traditional parties finishing with a still respectable 73% of the vote, subsiding to 56% in 2016, before falling below 50% this year.
The “Independents and Others” category has experienced more of a roller-coaster ride. As a category, they first garnered serious attention when the 1997 election returned 6 of them. Bertie Ahern’s minority coalition with the PDs relied on the informal support of some; most notably Jackie-Healy Rae, Michael Lowry and Mildred Fox. In 2002, an incoming tide elected 13 Independents. An outgoing tide in 2007 reduced their numbers to 5. But they roared back in 2011 with 14 seats, rising to 19 in 2016 and 20 today.
One factor that is not responsible for the increasing fragmentation is the electoral system. In 1982, the 166 seats were distributed across 41 constituencies; an average of 4.05 seats per constituency. The 160 seats this year were allocated between 39 constituencies; an average of 4.1 — virtually unchanged.
Possible causes of the fragmentation include the following.
One is straightforward incrementalism. Getting elected at all confers on both new parties and Independents a new threshold of credibility, an electoral foothold that makes it less difficult to get elected again — especially if they stay out of government. The PDs are dead, the Greens came close to death and Labour remains in intensive care because of their participation in government. “Cute” independents like the Healy-Raes and Michael Lowry have benefitted from loose association with various governments, winning concessions for their constituencies but avoiding the odium of being IN government.
A second reason is that electoral politics has morphed from being a tribal business to being a transactional one. I suspect there are few enduringly loyal voters below pension age. There are many reasons why tribal loyalty to the “traditional” parties has declined. The increasingly competitive political landscape is one. We are all leading “busier” lives. There is not much time for as well as purpose to party membership (other than as a manifestation of loyalty). There just isn’t much to do between elections beyond socialising and raising money. And the “crash” hit all of the traditional parties hard. Fianna Fáil took the blame for causing it, Fine Gael and Labour for imposing the pain required to tidy up afterwards.
Those considerations might explain why voters would switch to other parties like Sinn Féin which dangles the prospect of leading a genuinely “alternative” government; i.e., different in policy as well as personnel. Likewise the Greens or the diaspora of the Left, from its comparatively soft wing in the Social Democrats to the harder crew in Solidarity/PBP - though it is difficult if not quite impossible to imagine the last participating in such a government.
But they don’t quite explain the buoyancy of Independents. True, the last government lasted reasonably stably for 4 years despite reliance for survival on the participation of one cluster of Independents and the tacit support of others. But other than its performance on Brexit, the Repeal referendum (the success of which had an authorship much wider than professional politicians) and sound, if unimaginative, management of the public finances, it did not achieve very much. The configuration of unity, passion and clarity of purpose but, above all, a reliable majority, just weren’t there.
If people were as thirsty for the recent election to deliver “change” as is claimed, why did they establish a bloc of 12.5% of the Dáil which is a serious obstacle to the creation of any stable government, let alone one capable of executing a radical programme?
Again, there are several reasons.
One is that the country is still an intimate society where local and personal connections matter. Michael McNamara won election as an Independent in his native Clare. He might have lost his deposit if he ran in Donegal. The “genes” of intimacy and connection thrive especially in rural Ireland from which most Independents hail.
A second reason is that Independents are seen as “purer” than party “hacks”. There is no obvious path to the trappings of ministerial office for those who eschew party affiliation.
Third, Independents offer an option to voters who are “angry” or “agin” either the government or the entire political system — especially to voters who don’t want to go all the way to assigning allegiance to another party.
Fourth, some voters may see scope for their local Independent to follow the Lowry or Healy-Rae paths of trading their vote pragmatically for goodies for the constituency.
But another important reason is that electors see the exercise of their vote only as a choice, not a responsibility. Voters are consumers, choosing between the “offers” and “narratives” of different would-be professional politicians, not citizens to whom the exercise of the franchise is not only a right but carries connotations of duty around how that franchise is exercised.
Voters do not see themselves as having any great obligation to promote the emergence of a stable government. That responsibility lies entirely with those politicians who manage to get elected, even if they have only the raw material of a “Tower of Babel” Dáil with which to fashion it. From an individual voter perspective, it may not be self-indulgence to vote for Independents, from a collective perspective, it may well be.
And yet another reason that applies to Independents and insurgent smaller parties alike is the bias towards anger and cynicism about the larger “established” parties fostered by all forms of media; traditional and social. Ironically, while the words “populism” and “populist” are pejorative political labels in most of the mainstream media at least, their actual practices run contrary to their preaching. Also, in an era of immediate and permanent, “rolling” political coverage by so many, diverse outlets competing intensely to be seen, heard or read, feverishness, outrage and indignation are the order of the day.
The media’s approach to political news can be summarised in five propositions.
First, occasional abnormality matters more than regular normality. A plane crash merits attention. The thousands of daily flights that proceed without incident are taken for granted. A new virus is mega, a new vaccine is nada.
Second, the backbone of political “news” is a picture of the country staggering and stumbling from one crisis to the next because the overall “system” is strained and stressed, if not broken entirely.
Third, there are straightforward fixes to most of our problems, of which “more resources” is the most frequently cited.
Fourth, because of some or all of incompetence, complacency or corruption, the political “class” or “elite” are too personally invested in the status quo to take the necessary actions.
Fifth, by contrast, “ordinary” people are unfailingly decent, honest, fair, hardworking and struggling.
There is enough truth in all of these propositions for them to survive, even thrive, because there is no countervailing vaccine against them. But they are very far from being the whole truth.