The Irish political sphere has been a stagnant affair for almost one hundred years now, and with recent anti-austerity movements in the foreplay of people’s politics, is there a tenable solution to fundamentally change and perhaps fix Irish politics? Evidence would suggest that a reform of the voting structure used in Irish general elections, could be the awaited catalyst for change.
Since the foundation of the state, Irish politics has remained relatively unchanged. Fianna Fáil has remained on top for many years, alternating seats with other leading parties such as Fine Gael, Labour and Sinn Féin. It has only been in recent elections in 2011 and 2016 that Ireland has seen an increased volatility and change in the voting preferences of the people. It is imperative that we investigate why voting behaviour has remained stagnant for so long before we examine the prospects of changing the status quo.
There are several key factors that influence the voter and cause them to vote for a particular candidate. Some of these factors include the frequency for one to vote along the same party lines of their friends/family, the incentive to vote for a candidate that seems likely to win, the frequency for one to vote for the same party in subsequent general elections, etc. What’s quite interesting about the Irish voting behaviour, is that we have traditionally re-elected the same people and parties one day, after cursing them for messing up our economy the day before! So why do Irish voters elect the same parties consistently?
Peter Mair, an Irish political scientist, wrote an enlightening essay on Irish voting behaviour following the 2011 election called ‘We Need a Sense of Ownership of Our State’. Mair’s sudden passing shortly after writing this piece, meant that this would be his final publication. In the piece, he talked about a concept called ‘amoral localism’, which outlines the desire for the voter to choose a candidate based on their direct benefit to themselves, their family and their community. He argued that the Irish voter is apathetic towards national politics and policy-making, and their attention is directed towards his/her own locality. Mair argued that Ireland was, in a way, plagued with amoral localism and it has led to a stagnation in Irish politics.
Due to Irish people’s focus on municipal matters, there has been no accountability towards national government and policy-making; meaning the Irish people have traditionally not been scrutinising the Dáil and the Government as much as should be expected. The nature of the Irish electoral system enables voters to select a candidate, in a Single Transferable Vote (STV), who represent a particular party. One could argue, and quite justifiably so, that the Irish voter is ill-informed, and is voting based on local and personal matters. This means that the amount of the Irish electorate voting on issue-based matters, rather than on other socioeconomic or psychological factors, is comparably low, relative to other states. Could a change in the Irish electoral system, see a change in the voting preferences of the electorate too?
In the French electoral system, the electorate vote based on party, and seats are allocated based on the percentage vote of each party. If this system was incorporated into Irish politics, we may see a slow but radical change in the voting preferences of Ireland. The increased focus on a party rather than a candidate would incentivise the voter to understand party policy. This is not to say that the average Joe would suddenly care about the detailed taxation policy of each party, but their focus would aim more towards how national policies have a tangible effect on their life and their community and perhaps will compel Joe to pay attention.
Historically, Ireland has never had a strong left-wing party that represented truly socialist policies, in economic terms anyway. It’s quite evident that through ‘amoral localism’ and an apathetic approach to national politics from the Irish population, that there has never been a strong drive from the people to form a left-wing party rooted in socialist ideology. Because of this, Ireland’s two most popular parties are remarkably similar in economic policy and could be considered ‘centre-right’. Do Irish people simply despise socialism, or is there something else at play here?
Due to the stagnant nature of Irish politics, and a substantial majority of the Irish electorate unknowingly voting on criteria other than issue-based decision making; there has been no ideological demand for a socialist party. With the introduction of a system similar to that of France, there is a strong potential for Ireland to start paying close attention to its parties and their policies. An electoral reform in this manner could completely change Irish politics forever, and we could see a socialist party emerge. Issue-based party voting would undoubtedly change the political behaviour of the people and furthermore would change the outcome of elections and referenda alike.
The questions begging to be asked: ‘Will we see electoral reform in Ireland anytime soon?’ The answer is not a simple one as those with the power to change the system have justifiable reasons not to change it. Why would the largest parties want to reform or change our electoral system if it means a possibility of losing out on seats, an ideological focus on politics, a socialist party emerging, and a higher level of government scrutiny from the people? This kind of electoral reform must be demanded by the people and there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that it will not happen in the foreseeable future otherwise.
The unfortunate conclusion of this topic (which is purely subjective in its material basis, it should be noted that with politics: anything can happen), is that the people will likely stay apathetic to national politics, political ideology, and ignorant towards the potential for real change as a result of electoral reform. Subsequent elections in years to come will test these theories, and maybe, just maybe, we can see a change from this traditional stagnation in our national politics: the severity of the next economic recession may depend on it.
By Conor Capplis – Features Editor