How Ireland Voted 2011 – The Full Story of Ireland’s Earthquake Election: Review February 28, 2012Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economy, Irish Politics, The Left.
Given that the 25th of February 2011 was Election Day, and this is near enough the twelve month anniversary, it seems only appropriate to consider the most comprehensive analysis of that election, that being How Ireland Voted 2011 – The Full Story of Ireland’s Earthquake Election. Edited by Michael Gallagher and Michael Marsh and published by Palgrave MacMillan it’s a fairly handsome paperback volume. But presentation aside, and I’ll return to that point, it’s a good overview of arguably the defining election of the last decade, if not longer.
The book is divided into thirteen chapters, each of which deals with a different aspect of the election. So one can read about The Background to the Election, Candidate Selection, Campaign Strategies and Political Marketing, Internet Explorers: The Online Campaign, Women and the Election, analyses of the election results, and so on. The authors are in the main drawn from the world of political science – Jane Suiter, Michael Gallagher, Richard Sinnott and the late Peter Mair who died during the completion of the volume. But interestingly Pat Leahy of the Sunday Business Post is the author of the chapter on Campaign Strategies and Political Marketing. So the analysis is strong throughout.
A number of chapters are of particular interest. On the Campaign Trail provides accounts by various candidates of what the campaign was like at ground level. What’s useful about this is not so much the sense of looking behind the scenes of the campaign, but rather a sense as to the tone of this campaign in particular. And it appears to have been distinctively different in some ways. Candidates refer to Facebook and Google advertising campaigns. Fine Gael candidate Seán Kyne who won a seat in Galway West hardly refers to Fine Gael party centre and appears to have been running a campaign that on some issues put him at odds with party policy (as with his lack of support for the abolition of compulsory Irish in the Leaving Certificate). Labour candidate in Waterford, Ciara Conway, doesn’t mention her leader, or the early effort to position him as Taoiseach in the campaign. Then there’s the hapless Conor Lenihan, ex Fianna Fáil Minister of State who tellingly has a broader sense of the wax and wane of national political support and activity than some others quoted. There are also pieces by Mary Lou McDonald of Sinn Féin and Richard Boyd Barrett of the ULA. Both of those candidates discuss national politics and the economic situation to a remarkably greater degree than Kyne or Conway. There’s also a reflective piece by Paul Gogarty of the Green Party where he admits that ‘while some members of my team urged positivity, I preferred to take a realistic approach, and refused to play up my chances. We were gearing up for a hiding and there was no point in pretending otherwise’. And then there’s a piece by Averil Power, who did not take a seat for FF in my own old stomping ground, Dublin North East but was elected to the Seanad.
Another chapter that is perhaps of specific relevance to many here is the one on the Online Campaign. Written by two post-doctoral researchers, Matthew Wall and Maria Laura Sudulich, it examines in some detail the shape of the campaign on new media. And it takes a well balanced view. They argue that while ‘no serious campaign consultant would advise his or her candidate to focus solely on online campaigning in an Irish election and an investigation of the campaign activities that corresponded to electoral gains in the 2007 Irish campaign found that posters and leaflets were the most effective campaign tools…nevertheless, Irish parties, candidates, and citizenry have made rapid advances and undergone remarkable changes in their political use of internet technologies since the 2007 election’. They also note that ‘candidate online campaigning has more than doubled in prevalence since 2007, when only 32 per cent of candidates had individual campaign sites’.
One very intriguing piece of information is how rapidly Independent candidates have taken to these technologies. They reference Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan, John Halligan and Michael Lowry, all of who use Facebook and/or Twitter. Indeed disturbingly they note that Lowry has ‘over 5,000 friends on his Facebook profile’. But they also make the point that not all have adopted new media. Maureen O’Sullivan ‘succeeded without large numbers of friends of followers, and others such as Tipperary North candidate Kate Bopp and Dublin South-East’s Dylan Haskins were unable to convert popular social networking profiles into seats – although Haskins did particularly well for a non-affiliated first-time candidate, winning over 1,300 first preferences in a highly competitive constituency’.
I find that latter point worth considering. The problem with social networking is that, per definition, it is not restricted to geographical areas such as constituencies. It’s not that Haskins, or whoever, might not be popular in terms of such sites, but without the ability to operate in strength on the ground there was a clear gap between aspiration and implementation. And the O’Sullivan campaign suggests that in real terms the relationships between online media ‘support’ and actual political support may be nebulous at best. That said it is clear from the use of social media during the Presidential campaign that they can if given the right circumstances have an effect of considerable degree. One wonders if any future candidates will permit the use of tweets during a debate in the way the last one did?
In a way this is the most frustrating aspect of social media in contemporary politics. We know they have an effect, but unlike posters and leaflets it is difficult to gauge that effect in any substantial way. And in relation to official party websites there’s a chastening statistic related as regards web use; ‘in the 2001 UK election, Lusoli and Ward found that 5 per cent of survey respondents had visited the site of a political organisation, while a study of the 2010 UK election found that this proportion had tripled’. That’s still only 15 per cent of survey respondents. Impressive, certainly, but far from hegemonic. Then again, whether the party website is the best exemplar of the online form is open to question. How many here dipped in and out of those sites more than a couple of times during the campaign, as against a deeper engagement with boards, blogs, online media such as the Irish Times, Independent newspapers and RTÉ and so on?
Anyhow, the chapter considers that ‘this election has received wider coverage (in terms of the numbers of people producing coverage and the volumes of news and analysis disseminated for public consumption) than any previous event in the history of Ireland’. That’s almost certainly correct. And even though they note the fragmentation of content creation as containing a downside due to the near impossibility of recording all that is posted online they are in general terms positive about the outcomes.
Peter Mair’s chapter is fascinating too, being focused on The Election in Context. And he notes that ‘in [election] 2007 analysts expected change and got continuity, even though the continuity was fragile. In 2011, they expected change and they got change, even though in some crucial respects the outcome was not that different from what had been experienced in earlier momentous contests.’ It is perhaps a stretch to suggest that 2007 played a similar role to the 1992 election in the UK, where expectations of significant political restructuring outstripped the rather more banal reality, where as 2011 was similar to 1997 in seeing a genuine structural shift. But perhaps one can also argue that the changes in 1997 in the UK were to dissipate – although few then would have foreseen a Tory/Liberal Democrat coalition as the outcome of a future election. Mair convincingly argues that 2007 ‘was the last good year before the Celtic Tiger collapsed’ and economic issues were subsequently to assume a centrality that was quite distinct from their position prior to the crisis. Indeed we are still living through that very process of transformation. Intriguingly Mair argues that as well as Fianna Fáil and the Green Party being ‘losers’ he would add the Progressive Democrats ‘which entered the 2007 election as an independent patty, and which had dissolved themselves mid-term’. And it is telling that of their Dáil cohort only Noel Grealish remains – although their last leader then Senator Ciarán Cannon is now a Fine Gael TD. But the political import of this is that Mair suggests that in terms of volatility 2011 – and he argues that 29.6 per cent of votes to FF/GP and PD were lost that year – was the most volatile election in Irish political history. And placing this in historical context, the arrival of FF as a force in the Dáíl in the 1930s, the 1943 election where both Labour and Clann na Talmhan made significant gains, and even 1992 where the LP ‘suddenly doubled their vote’, he still regards 2011 as exceptional, and continues ‘even though it is possible that it may yet signal a return to the sort of extended sequence of highly unstable electoral outcomes that marked the late 1920s and 1930s’.
And it is as a resource informed by the depth of analysis apparent above that the book is particularly useful. From the nature of the campaign to a consideration of potential outcomes from policies announced both before and during it – one chapter for example considers The Final Seanad Election? – it works well for a broad audience.
WIth that in mind it’s also worth noting that there’s little question that the standard of presentation of many academic and crossover books – those which sit between academia and more general readerships, has improved enormously in the past decade. This one, for example, contains a few pages of photographs on glossy paper close to the introduction and is dotted with diagrams and photographs throughout.
And given that political activity is uniquely visually oriented it cannot really be otherwise if one is to give a full analysis. That said a chapter dedicated to that might have been of particular interest. Interestingly the chapter on the Online campaign is perhaps best in that regard because it examines party websites. Of course there are now a broad range of internet based resources for those looking for examples of election material. The Irish Election Literature Blog hosted by our own IELB is a first port of call.
But these are relatively minor quibbles given the breadth of engagement of the book with the overall topic. Should anyone interested in the topic have this book on their shelves? Most definitely.
And there’s one thought from it which has remained with me subsequent to reading it, and that’s the following:
‘…in 2002 Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil won 133 seats between them, and in 2011 the same parties won… 133 seats’.
So, perhaps big changes, but not necessarily quite as big as they might sometimes seem.