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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11 Responses to “Irish elections 2011: The day the Soldiers of Destiny met theirs”

  1. Andrew Forrest

    RT @leftfootfwd: Irish elections 2011: The day the Soldiers of Destiny met theirs: by HazelJN

  2. Mr. Sensible

    Hazel, like you say the point about the proportion of first preferences and seats is something I think we should study before voting in the AV referendum on May 5th.

  3. michael burke

    But will Labour tilt it in the direction of Fine Gael- who are more Right-wing even than FF, not only more cuts but privatisation and mass sackings of public sector workers too?

    Or, as Unite’s Jimmy Kelly says, should they hold their nerve and lead a progressive alliance of the Left?

  4. R. Mac Giolla

    “It is also where he was shot by hard line FF supporters for which the county is also famous.”

    Really? Michael Collins was shot by Fianna Fáil-ers?
    The same Michael Collins who was assassinated in 1922 and the same Fianna Fáil that was founded in 1926, four years later?
    That’s pretty impressive!

  5. Hazel

    1. Yes the voting system should be studied, but keep in mind that av is not the same as prstv.

    2. Being an Irish labour party member myself I’d rather the party not go in with Fg, but that’s a decision party menses will vote on at special delegates conference- in accordance to ilp internal rules.

    3. Fianna fail came out of that faction of the civil war split, so while they may not have used the name Fianna fail until a later date, it was that group of people. They also claim their roots to be the same. I only simplified to say that as it would have taken another paragraph to go into the detail. Effectively they are the same, though they all claimed to be sf at the time: being anti treaty sf at that stage . Didn’t want to confuse people with the current sf which is a different thing. Michael Collins wan in Cng tbf.

  6. Colleen Wiltse

    Irish elections 2011: The day the Soldiers of Destiny met theirs …: Not only did this election represent the o…

  7. Tacitus

    It would be a sad day for Irish Labour if they walked into a coalition with FG. far better for them to unite the left and build a broad socialist alliance on which they can build. Irish politics is in transition and the left can have a critical role to play if they don’t sell-out now.

  8. Rob

    Perhaps the new government will get on with employing those who are local, loyal and skilled, rather than those who cannot find work in their own country and who merely come into our country, only to “repatriate” their earnings to another country, causing nett outflow of funds so urgently required at home. Another things which has to be addressed urgently is that Ireland should set up manufacturing businesses in order to export products and bring in much needed foreigh funds. Come on FG this is your opportunity to make a difference.

  9. Elliot Folan

    @Mr Sensible – under the FPTP system those Fianna Fail votes would have been plain wasted votes.

    They still wouldn’t have contributed to seats.

    Under preferential voting those voters still had a voice in the outcome. Maybe they put Fine Gael or even Independents 2nd, I don’t know. But they certainly elected someone.

    So I agree. Let’s look at it closely – because it’s the strongest case for voting YES!

  10. Liathain

    Rob – I can’t figure out if you’re an Irish person giving out about the Poles or a British person giving out about the Irish – either way you’re talking nonsense. Dermot Desmond as an individual has taken more money out of the Republic then all the new communities combined.

    There’s a whole raft of considerations to be taken into account in discussing the election just gone. The first is that superficial comparisons with the UK won’t get us very far. The Republic has its own unique political culture and just because the two places look more or less the same and we broadly speak the same language does not mean that political issues and realities cross the Irish sea.

    For example coalitions in the Republic are in recent years the defacto form of government and it was generally expected (outside of a few over excited FG commentators trying to give the impression of momentum) that this government would be a FG/LAB coalition. It’s not an aberration like the current phoney war in the HoC. People voted for Labour and FG on the understanding that they would go in together (again very different circumstances to the UK).

    The difficulty for the Irish Labour Party is that it’s faced with a tough choice – either stand firm in a difficult government or lead the opposition and be left open to accusations of ducking the hard choices.
    Bluntly my instinct is for Labour to go into opposition but I wonder if that instinct is born of putting my desire to build the Labour Party ahead of actually implementing change. I understand the urge to make every political development seem massive game changers but I won’t write Fianna Fail off just yet. They have a brand and a history that for some reason people trust, they may have to go through a period of detoxification but they’ll be back in some guise or another (Fianna #Fail Nua – #Fail again, #Fail better).

    Before accepting as a fait accompli that Labour will act as a mudguard its worth pointing out that the PD’s tail successfully wagged the FF dog for a number of years and that by no means should numerical strengths be the sole yardstick on which to predict a governments or component party’s success.

    The Republic is at least a decade behind the rest of Europe on social legislation and Labour could seek to rectify this (and you need a society in bad times as well as good).

    General appeals to build a left alternative are all well and good but what’s the next step of the plan? I’m sure the Shinners would be insulted if you put them in the same category as Labour, the Trots would go mad and start spluttering about ‘human masks on capitalism’ or something. That’s fine – as revolutionaries they’re not mainly focused on parliamentary action, that’s grand let them choose their own way. The Shinner’s get fierce agitated at Labours internationalism and prefer the lump of turf below their feet rather than looking out at the wider world – again let them do their thing but it’s a damn sight different then Labours politics.

    Labour facing grief from its left flank is nothing new. Most of it goes down to the peculiar student lefty mindset that you always have to prove you’re further left than anyone else but the prolier then thou stuff whiffs more of evangelicalism then politics. SF and the assorted Trot’s never showed any particular softness when it came to attacking Labour before (nowt wrong with that let them fire away) and I can’t imagine anything will change if Labour does or does not go into government.

    Decisions are made by the government and to put it simply a party with enough self confidence shouldn’t balk at the idea of being in that government. For me it all revolves around what the negotiations produce. Labour have always had a more comprehensive plan of action then the laissez faire Fine Gael and while resisting the urge to use cricket analogies I hope Labour may surprise people yet.

    We’ll see this weekend one way or the other.

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