Tuesday, 1 March 2016

My analysis of and thoughts on the Irish general election of 2016

Whilst I was away at Green Party conference, the Republic of Ireland held its 2016 general election to elect members to the 32nd Dail. I will point out that at this time of writing that the Longford-Westmeath count has still not quite finished, with two of its seats left to declare. 156 seats including that of Ceann Comhairle (Speaker) Sean Barrett have been filled, though.

Despite claims of a 'recovery' which were often repeated throughout the campaign, the Fine Gael-Labour coalition (really more like the UK's previous Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition) was soundly thrashed by the electorate for the misery it caused to many. Labour suffered the heaviest losses, leaving them with just 7 TDs (Teachta Dailas, or members of the Dail) and 6.6% of the first preference vote, their worst result in Irish history. The only consolation at all for them was that the Tanaiste and Labour Party leader Joan Burton kept her seat in Dublin West despite there being a chance she would lose it. Ministers like Alex White in Dublin Rathdown and veterans like Emmet Stagg in Kildare North were not so lucky, however, and Labour lost representation in their former leader Eamon Gilmore's constituency of Dun Laoghaire. Fine Gael also suffered a substantial defeat, losing 26 seats to leave them with 50 and the loss of Fine Gael's ex-Defence Minister Alan Shatter in Dublin Rathdown was a particular blow of note. They still remain the largest party in the Dail, however, since Ireland is becoming more accepting of true multi-party politics.

Another reason for these heavy losses were the creation of Renua Ireland (a right-wing, liberal party) by 3 ex-FG TDs and the Social Democrats by prominent ex-Labour TD Roisin Shortall (TD for Dublin North West) and independents Catherine Murphy (Kildare North) and Stephen Donnelly (Wicklow). All 3 Social Democrat TDs were reelected although despite strong performances elsewhere such as in Dublin Central and Limerick County they failed to elect anyone else to the Dail. Renua Ireland, meanwhile, achieved 2.2% of the vote overall, enough to reclaim national election expenses, but lost all of their Dail representation despite the best efforts of Lucinda Creighton, Terence Flanagan, and Billy Timmins, who could not pick up enough crucial transfers in later counts.

Fianna Fail made a surprisingly strong recovery, more than doubling its 2011 seat total from 20 to 44, although this was expected given that its moderate profile made it 'transfer-friendly' again (Ireland uses STV for its elections) and how badly it had performed in 2011. It is unlikely, however, to ever again reach the heights it once did, and it did not become the largest party in the Dail either. This is partly because there are few if any real differences between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael in practice and because the Irish electorate are no longer willing to let them simply play musical chairs on the Irish political scene as they once did.

Sinn Fein were initially expected to perform very well, but in the end they only increased their seat total in the Dail from 14 to 23, and actually lost one of their seats in Donegal. Part of the reason for this was because they proved not to be very adept at getting late transfers, since Sinn Fein is divisive in the Republic of Ireland amongst voters the same way it is in Northern Ireland, except less so. In many cases, however, their failures were rather close in the final stages as Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and various Independents scrambled for that constituency's last seat; in a notable example of this, Independent TD Thomas Pringle retained his Donegal seat against all expectations  and stopped Sinn Fein from winning a second seat there in the process (his native town had been moved out of the recreated constituency).

I am pleased for the performance of the Irish Green Party, who returned to the Dail by electing their leader, Eamon Ryan, in Dublin Bay South and their deputy leader, Catherine Martin, in Dublin Rathdown; they also saved their national election expenses this time around despite having the disadvantage of being excluded from a major Leaders' Debate of this election. Let us hope they do not repeat the mistakes of the 30th Dail of 2007-2011, in which Eamon Ryan was a Green TD.

Left-wing candidates in Ireland, however, proved to be the star of the show, especially in the Dublin area. Despite the fact that both Clare Daly and Joan Collins had left the Socialist Party (now the Anti-Austerity Alliance) and People Before Profit (PBP) but still got elected in their respective constituencies of Dublin Fingal and Dublin South-Central, the AAA-PBP alliance elected six TDs, who were Mick Barry (Cork North-Central), Gino Kenny (Dublin Mid-West), Brid Smith (Dublin South-Central), Paul Murphy (Dublin South-West), Ruth Coppinger (Dublin West) and Richard Boyd Barrett (Dun Laoghaire). Two of the other Independents 4 Change TDs, Mick Wallace and Tommy Broughan, were also comfortably returned although Seamus Healy had a more difficult time in a reunited Tipperary constituency. However, their support outside Dublin is usually rather limited, although Cian Prendeville performed strongly in Limerick City.

Direct Democracy Ireland, however, never got anywhere. Not a single one of their 21 candidates received enough votes to even save their election expenses and Ben Gilroy failed to repeat his 2013 Meath East by-election feat of beating Labour, although in Meath West next door his colleague Alan Lawes did beat the Labour candidate there. Most other DDI candidates got between 100 and 300 first preference votes apiece and they often came bottom of their constituency poll, including their leader Pat Greene in Louth. The 5 Workers' Party candidates suffered a similar fate but with less derisory results than DDI; a similar thing happened with the 3 Catholic Democrats candidates although none of them finished last in their constituency. Fis Nua did poorly as well in Clare and Donegal, although that was better than the new United People Party, which never even made it to a ballot paper this election when their sole candidate, Enda Reynolds, pulled out for reasons unknown.

21 Independent TDs were elected to this Dail, 5 from the Independent Alliance and 16 general Independents. The Independent Alliance elected Shane Ross (Dublin Rathdown), the first TD to be declared duly elected to the 32nd Dail, and also Finian McGrath (Dublin Bay North), Kevin 'Boxer' Moran (Longford-Westmeath), Sean Canney (Galway East), and Michael Fitzmaurice (Roscommon-Galway); their other candidates generally polled reasonably well depending on constituency. Notable other independents elected include LGBT advocate Katherine Zappone in Dublin South-West, local doctor Michael Harty in Clare, and brothers Michael Healy-Rae and Danny Healy-Rae in Kerry; Michael Healy-Rae received the most 1st preference votes of any TD elected this year with an impressive 20,378. My friend Fiona O'Leary, an autism rights activist, was not so lucky in Cork South West, winning only 423 first preference votes. For every independent who succeeds or nearly succeeds in getting a Dail seat, there are many who do not even come close to the mark in Irish elections. Several former FG/Labour TDs and activists who ran as independents, like Fidelma Healy Eames, failed to even save their expenses (a candidate needs to reach 1/4 of the Droop quota in their constituency at some point to reclaim up to 8700 Euros of election expenses). Pat Feeney in Galway West received the wooden spoon in the 2016 Irish general election by polling just 22 first preference votes.

With Irish politics more diverse than ever before, a Fine Gael-Fianna Fail coalition might end up emerging through lack of an alternative government formation and a desire to avoid a snap election, even though these two parties have been bitter enemies since the 1920s. The Fine-Gael Labour coalition is down to a total of 57 seats from the 113 it obtained altogether in 2011, and can clearly no longer govern. Nor can Fianna Fail realistically form a viable government from other parties at present.


UPDATE: The Longford-Westmeath count finally concluded earlier today, so all 158 seats have been filled.

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