Irish elections 2011: The day the Soldiers of Destiny met theirs

Hazel Nolan, who has just returned from campaigning in the Irish elections, reflects on the significance of the demise of Fianna Fáil, for so long the governing party in Ireland.

Hazel Nolan, who has just returned from campaigning in the Irish elections, reflects on the significance of the demise of Fianna Fáil, for so long the governing party in Ireland

Irish society was long regarded as being supported by three pillars, what was referred to as the “Holy Trinity”; the Catholic Church, Fianna Fáil (FF), and the Gaelic Athletic Association. Last weekend, the Irish people, long silent throughout the unfolding of the economic crisis, brought the second pillar to its knees.

Fianna Fáil, or as their name translates: the Soldiers of Destiny, have not just been another political party in Irish politics. What has happened is not just that some random political party has lost an election.

Dating back to the declaration of Ireland as a republic, Fianna Fáil has never seen their public support dip below 39 per cent or 65 seats. This makes them historically one of the most successful political forces in the whole of the European continent.

Fianna Fáil has never lost an election in the history of the state. They have only ever been kept out of government by the combined alliance of Fine Gael (FG) and the Irish Labour Party(ILP).

After this election they return with a mere 20 seats out of 166 seats in the Irish Parliament, now the third party represented in the state. This is truly historic from an Irish political point of view.

I went home early for the election in order to canvass and vote. My home constituency is that of Cork South West (CSW). It is one of the largest and most rural. It is the birthplace of historical figure Michael Collins, figurehead of FG. It is also where he was shot by hard line FF supporters for which the county is also famous.

Its support for FG and FF is traditionally so strong that no other party usually gets a look in. It has three seats which are almost always exclusively divided between FF and FG. There is now for the first time ever no FF seat here, having lost out to the ILP.

However CSW is not alone. In Dublin, out of 12 constituencies and a total of 51 Dáil seats- Fianna Fáil hold only one seat, Dublin West, where they got elected into the last of the four seats in that constituency. This hasn’t just been a rural divide either. Fianna Fáil now no longer holds a single seat in the whole of the Kerry region – which had historically along with West Cork been a bastion of FF support.

This is added to FF no longer having representation in 11 further rural constituencies, representing a total number of 32 seats.

Most of my campaigning I did in the constituency of Cork South Central. It is a five-seat constituency which takes in most of Cork City. It is the constituency represented by Micháel Martin, who took over as leader of FF going into the recent election. It is now one of only two constituencies in the entire country where FF have more than one seat.

However, this constituency still elected Micháel Martin into the first seat to be filled out of five, on the first count and which also saw him top the poll. His running mate Michael McGrath also narrowly scraped in to collect the last of the five seats.

This highlights an unspoken reality of this election. Fianna Fáil have effectively been smashed by the electorate, but look at what it has taken to do so. The real sword that FF fell on was largely delivered by way of the electoral system. On 17.4 per cent of the first preference vote, they should in reality be returning with closer to 30-35 seats.

Contrast their return to that of the ILP who only received a 2 per cent higher share of first preference votes and yet will be retuning 37 TDs to Dáil Éireann, a record breaker for the Irish Labour Party.

This is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the election, from a British political point of view. It was not just that enough no. 1 votes were not cast for FF candidates. In many cases many FF candidates saw their vote count ahead of other candidates, placing them in position to take a seat. However, as lower placed candidates began to be eliminated as the counts continued, the redistribution of their votes away from FF and towards pretty much any and all other candidates eventually saw these other candidates overtake FF.

There was clearly a tide against FF, and this is most evident in the story of their transfers. Where FF candidates usually get elected based on topping the poll and coming in to take seats in the early counts in an election, they never have to rely on transfers from elsewhere. This election saw them being effectively transfer repellent and ultimately therefore not elected.

In Ireland we use a proportional representation by the single transferable vote (PRSTV) system, but it is the effects of the preferential style of the system that are the most important. This allowed a country to unite in anger across the political spectrum to deliver a crushing defeat to the outgoing government.

This was never going to be just another election. Neither was it merely an election based on anger at the economic situation. This election was about the culture of Irish politics, which made it possible for the current crisis to occur. The second story about this election was not how many FF TDs lost seats, it was also about which TDs lost.

Political Family Dynasties that seemed untouchable before came crashing down-  and not just those belonging to FF.

Not only did this election represent the opportunity to change the government. It most importantly represented the opportunity to fundamentally change the landscape of Irish politics. The election results have delivered just that, the opportunity to change the system.

An old system of political cronyism and tribal power has potentially been purged, the question now is – what to replace it with?

The make-up of the new government will determine the answer to that question. Here the Irish Labour Party holds a lot of power. They can remain in opposition, and lead it for the first time in history; or serve in government with the hopes of curtailing the harsher elements of Fine Gael centre-right policy.

The negotiations over the coming days will be crucial in this aspect. Ireland is on a tipping point. The Labour party has the power to tilt it either way.

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