Home > Uncategorized > How to explain Irish politics to people who didn’t grow up there (without mentioning the recession)

How to explain Irish politics to people who didn’t grow up there (without mentioning the recession)

February 23, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

To begin with, set aside any traditional notions based around twentieth century political norms. Most people will assume that political divisions in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century are based along left/right economic grounds. Toss that now. Or maybe you’d assume that a country known for a fairly fundamentalist religious past – which didn’t legalise divorce until 1995 and which still has no legal abortion – divides its politics along the fault line of socially authoritarian versus libertarian instead. That would also be untrue.

Irish politics doesn’t work like that. It works as follows:

In 1921 a treaty for independence was negotiated with Britain. It contained a number of unpopular aspects – Northern Ireland, oaths of loyalty to the crown, etc. One side supported the treaty, the other opposed it. This led to Civil War. It also led to the two dominant parties in Irish politics.

On one side was Cumann na nGaedheal, who grew up to be Fine Gael. And on the other was Fianna Fail, who grew and evolved to become…. Fianna Fail.

Ninety years ago, an emerging western democracy was divided over a treaty. There were some differences between the parties in the early years – in their attitudes to nationalism and republicanism and religion, in their economic views. Its two main parties are still identified according to this ancient divergence. There is a strangely cult-like sense of loyalty to whichever of these two indistinguishable parties an Irish person feels aligned. Political allegiance is passed down in families, and seats in parliament seem to do likewise. But their only differences now lie in the individuals who choose to continue voting for them. These differences cannot be observed or verified by science. I’m not even sure they can be hypothesised. They are both economically centre-right and socially centrist*, with a 10% swing to the left in good time and 10% to the right when times are bad. With appropriate respect to Phil Ochs, this should not lead to any suspicions of liberalism.

Two parties? But there are loads of parties…..

There are, or have been, three major parties in Ireland for the last forty years – Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour. Two of these have formed every government in the state’s history.

Wiki provides a nice table of all Irish governments, right here. You can see that every government since 1923 has been led by either FF or FG (called Cumann na nGaedheal before it merged with fascists to become FG). You can also note that FF have been in government for 20 of the last 23 years. And for 55 of the 88 years of the country’s existence.

People assume that I come from a cynical perspective when I say that FF and FG are politically indistinguishable. They assume that such a statement is taken from the ‘Blair is as bad as Thatcher’ or ‘No difference between Labour and the Tories/Democrats and Republicans’ school of rhetoric. This is something I’ll leave others to discuss, but that I personally think requires an element of myopia or despair. And generally speaking when politics divides between a social or economic left and right wing, you can discern, if you try, a difference.

Where politics divides along lines that no one understands or remembers, it is genuinely difficult to find that difference.

Before you reach for the calendar, I can confirm that it is now 2011. Some would say that it is time for Irish politics to grow the fuck up and stop basing what passes for political identity on a Civil War most people under thirty don’t understand and many have never even studied in school and pretended to understand for the traditional half hour. I’d imagine I could find a few who have never heard of it. So it would make sense for two major centre-right parties to just merge – and perhaps reveal this illusionary nature of their disparateness to the electorate. Or maybe this would only go to show that Ireland has elected the same politics if not the same politicians for 88 years.

The Irish Labour Party

There is a Labour Party in Ireland. It has been known to get as much as 20% of the vote, or as little as 6.4%. In this election it is running at 22% support. This election, in which the Irish people have chosen to slash and bash the traditional FF ~40% down to a possible 14%, Labour are expected to get 22%.

The Irish system has the added benefit of maintaining a spare centre-right party, for those times when the country wants to punish the centre-right party that has just been in power. Thus Fianna Fail can be meted an electoral battering this year but Fine Gael can keep their seats and most of their politics warm for a term or two. Many countries do not keep a spare centre-right party for these sorts of emergencies. This is very poor planning.

If you don’t keep a spare centre-right party handy, you might have to vote Labour, and that has never happened in Ireland.

Electing the Opposition

The important part of an Irish general election is Electing the Opposition. This is based on Fianna Fail as the self-proclaimed ‘natural party of government’ – an impressive title in a multi-party democracy, or really anywhere outside of a banana republic. The result of this is the idea that a general election is the people’s opportunity to appoint the opposition. Government takes care of itself, like the sun rising and setting, and nuclear waste from Sellafield.

Due to Single Transferable Vote and multi-candidate constituencies, there is a strong history of forceful Independents – single issue candidates and otherwise – as well as small political parties who may gain 2-10 seats in a given election. Thus the Greens, Sinn Fein, Democratic Left (before joining Labour) and the Progressive Democrats (before coalescing once too often with FF and bearing the brunt of political fallout) can gain a small but significant number of seats.


It is impossible to address Irish national politics without dealing with the local nature of it. The party from which a candidate hails may, for example, be viewed as ‘a shower of little bollixes’, however there’s a decent chance that you may know him or her, spoken to them personally, or remember that time when they organised for a cat to be rescued from a tree. Maybe you wouldn’t want to vote for Fianna Fail because you blame them for recently ruining the country, but that nice John Murphy was wonderful when the pub down the road started attracting a very noisy crowd and he got that all sorted out for us. You couldn’t let the fact that he’s standing for a party you currently hate trump that. A party’s policies, even their most abhorrent policies, are often ignored in favour of these anecdotal tales of bonhomie.

Charlie Haughey was known for paying constituents’ milk bills as he canvassed. He’d bring the receipt up the door and tell the person ‘Oh, don’t worry about that. I got it.’ This approach to canvassing was very popular with the electorate.


This leads us to cronyism. Sometimes just known as ‘corruption’. This has been very expensive, because Ireland in the boom years had to fund any number of near-endless national Tribunals to investigate it. The history of the last fifteen years is one of Tribunals. There’s the Mahon Tribunal (Payments for ‘Certain Planning Matters’), the McCracken tribunal (Payments to politicians by a leading Irish businessman) which became the Moriarty Tribunal (same subject, remains ongoing).

Out of these Tribunals, spanning two decades, came the endless stream of effluent which runs through Irish politics, and which is usually packaged neatly in brown envelopes. If you want something done, it emerged, pay a politician hard cash.

The tribunals are estimated to have cost the tax payer £700 million to date and each of them investigated institutionalised corruption.

There is a general feeling – based only on their having dominated national government for the history of the state – that FF win in the cronyism and corruption stakes. This is open to argument, and no one could ever say that FG don’t try their darndest. But the party that has been in power for more of Ireland’s 88 years has more to offer the corrupt and the opportunistic, and so they come out ahead.

Much of their current popular damnation is linked to this.

There is a seam of genuine admiration running through Irish society for what is colloquially known as the ‘cute hoor’. If you can side-step the spelling and latent misogyny, this term could be roughly translated as ‘smart or canny bastard.’ The politician that everyone knows runs a land rezoning racket; the late alcohol licences that go to friends and well-wishers of particular councillors. The Taoiseach who sternly tells the nation to tighten its collective belt while wearing designer shirts funded by tax-evasion. The other Taoiseach who apparently didn’t own a bank account in his own name for several years. The number of leading politicians who had houses bought or renovated for them by concerned friends, and sometimes friends of friends. These little traditions are often regarded fondly and related almost approvingly – the actions of an adorable child acting the rascal.

This admiration is offset by occasional periods of puritanism, in which everyone is shocked – shocked! – to discover that their elected leaders are morally vacuous criminals.

Never underestimate the years of therapy that may be required to sort out the national psyche in this regard. And therapy is expensive, so this is unlikely happen in the immediate future.

In the meantime, a country facing economic ruin, unprecedented unemployment, and still waiting for a medical system that functions on the most basic level, will be going to the polls to punish a party that they blame for destroying them. They will do this by electing that party’s identikit twin brother, cunningly disguised in a cheap Halloween mask.

PS – best of luck to Eygpt.

*Well, Bertie Ahern claimed to be a socialist some years ago. This was widely regarded as somewhat disingenuous. It was also widely regarded as really very funny. However, the poor man was later found to be telling the truth, when the country realised his was the first Irish party to nationalise the banks. Unfortunately the banks were, well, bankrupt at the time, and so this single act of socialism is now widely regarded as one that has done more than any other to ruin Ireland.

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  1. Anonymous
    February 28, 2011 at 11:41 pm

    Someone was reading this in work today and it started a good argument! Great summing up of the whole thing.

  2. Tomás M. Creamer
    December 2, 2014 at 7:03 pm

    Reblogged this on Tommy Arigna and commented:
    Best article EVER to explain Irish politics in a nutshell – even if outdated by a few years

  1. June 8, 2011 at 6:02 pm

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