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How Ireland Voted 2011 – The Full Story of Ireland’s Earthquake Election: Review February 28, 2012

Posted 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.


1. Phil - February 28, 2012

I was intrigued by the last point, so I put a chart together.

Strong FG: not new
Strong Labour: not new
Substantial Left: not new at all
>10 non-Left Independents: not new

Strong SF: new
Strong Labour *and* big SF presence *and* a lot of Independents


2. Phil - February 28, 2012

Oops. Er, as I was saying…

Strong Labour *and* big SF presence *and* a lot of Independents *and* no PD: very new

This isn’t in any meaningful way a shift to the Left – as your latest post says, if Labour are Left, who needs the Right? But it is a shift towards instability; it looks as if FF are going the same way as the Italian Christian Democrats. (And could the same thing happen to FG?) It looks as if some very deep-seated habits of political command and conformity are losing their hold, and about time too.


WorldbyStorm - February 29, 2012

Those are great points Phil. And you’re right, there’s nothing entirely analogous to the current situation. Even the rise of Clann na Poblachta who were radicalish Republicans much influenced in part by the UK welfare state, though more centre left than left [by the lights of the time] plus varied Indo’s and smaller parties isn’t quite the same because they were immediately hoovered up into government.


Ed - February 29, 2012

Well it depends what you mean by a ‘shift to the left’, if you mean a shift in government policy, clearly not, but if you’re taking about a shift in the popular mood, I’d put it this way – Labour presented itself to the electorate as a social-democratic party; not as a radical party, of course, but it certainly put forward an image of itself as a left-of-centre party.

Now I’m sure most readers of this blog, being familiar with the Labour Party’s history, and with the general record of social democracy in the last couple of decades, would have assumed that none of that talk would last once they had formed a coalition with FG, and of course that’s what has happened. But the majority of people don’t follow politics as avidly as we do; Labour hadn’t been in office since 1997; so I think it’s fair to assume that a lot of people would have taken them more or less at their word. Not that they were expecting Attlee-style reforms from Labour, but they probably would have expected them to at least try and soften the impact of austerity in a way that FG wouldn’t.

So in that sense, it’s reasonable to see the increased vote for Labour as part of a general shift to the left among voters. In the same way, the rise in support for SF does, I think, represent a shift to the left by that part of the electorate, even if people are rightly dubious about what SF would actually do if it found itself in government over the next few years. Obviously I’m happiest to see people vote for a consistent left-wing force like the ULA, but I don’t think you need to have any illusions about Labour or SF to see it as a promising sign if their share of voting preferences increased between 2007 and 2011 at the expense of FF. It’s a potential that could be realised, not by those parties, but perhaps by others.

Needless to say, of course, it would be much more useful if even one-fifth of those people were out on the streets protesting against austerity, but you have to take what you can get for the time being …


Phil - February 29, 2012

Good points.

It’s also interesting, reading this in Britain, to read your first couple of paragraphs and mentally substitute ‘Lib Dem’…


3. Dr. X - February 28, 2012

>>>and about time too.

Nearly a century late, in fact.


4. Oireachtas retort - February 29, 2012

“But interestingly Pat Leahy of the Sunday Business Post is the author of the chapter on Campaign Strategies and Political Marketing.”

Not too long ago we were questioning the identity of the backroom column when they appeared to be angling for job. Worth remembering


WorldbyStorm - February 29, 2012

Fair point.


5. Julian Assandwich - February 29, 2012

As a former politics student I’m intrigued by all this – though I couldn’t care for the actual institutions. Around last September I ran through all the constituencies and a fairly conservative estimate that the FG-Labour government will be punished by 5 more years of similarly gruelling austerity, yet not be crushed like FF-GRN-PDs were.

Obviously it is an impossible task with infinite variables and local nuances I can never hope to know. However the figures I came out with the other side for 2015/6 with gave something like

FG – 46 (28% of seats, down 16percantage points)
Labour – 23 (14% of seats, down 8pp)

SF – 36 (up 14pp)
FF – 29 (up 5pp)
ULA – 9 (up 2.5pp)
GRN – 5 (up 3pp)
“Right Independents” – 10
“Left Independents” – 8(combined up 5pp)

In hindsight, I think I was very kind to Labour(who only have 1 seat to defend in most instances, FG have 2 and 3 in many) and the Greens(tho they polled 1.8 percent – enough for 3) but that’s probably my left bias showing so y’all should adjust for that ;-).

On it’s own that would be an electoral earthquake of Civil War proprtions – no one party with more than 50 seats, all 3 establishment suffering lasting damage. Gov of either FG+FF+? or SF in power with ?

Here’s the rub – that prediction for ge2015/6 looks like it could be the result if an election were called tomorrow, or certainly in the locals: if you translate those seats into opinion poll results I reckon its FG – 30, Lab – 16, FF – 18, SF – 22, ULA – 5.5, GRN – 3.0 fairly closely trailing recent polls. What may actually happen in 4/5 years time might absolutely dwarf 2011.


WorldbyStorm - February 29, 2012

Four years from now… it’s so far as to be almost impossible to predict, other than saying that it is highly unlikely things will have got better for FG/LP. Those are very intriguing figures you suggest there.


CMK - February 29, 2012

Interesting figures, alright. But I can’t see where 5 green seats are going to come from given that of the prominent Greens on Ryan and possibly Mark Dearey are in any way still active politically.

Also, think back to 1 March 2008: Bertie was still Taoiseach, FF will still in their pomp and getting worse, Cowen was Finance Minister and the infamous St. Patrick’s Day discussion about Anglo had not yet happened, Anglo and INBS were still running riot. A lot can happen in four years, who knows what’s out there in the long grass. A government that finds it has to sack 20,000 public servants or close four or five regional hospitals in the space of a couple of months, so as not to breach the fiscal compact rules (a not unlikely scenario in 2015/6), will not relish facing the electorate.

Also, political adherence to austerity is subject to diminishing returns and there are at least four more years to go, possibly more if a second ‘bailout’ is required (not unlikely). Also, we’ll soon see that from the perspective of Draghi, Merkel, Van Rompuy etc, we are just a speck in the European economy, a little over two per cent of aggregate GDP. This state is politically useful as an example of their imposed austerity ‘working’. But they’ll grind us into the dust without breaking a sweat, and with no thought of the sacrifices that have been made for them, if they think we pose a threat to the Euro.

There’s a false sense of stability in the Euro crisis now, based on the passage of the last Greek deal. A Greek parliament stalemated by a KKE/Syriza majority after the next elections will lead to calls for that parliament to be suspended and a new technocratic government appointed. There is still a lot to happen in Europe that will shake us here and projected forward to the elections of 2016 will produce results that looking back from 2016 will probably appear wildly inaccurate.


Julian Assandwich - February 29, 2012

Oh certainly it is impossible and futile to try predict the result of an election quite down the road(or not). It does work well as an indicator as to how the public has turned fairly sharply against the government so fast though, which is a pleasant surprise. We can assume this is as good as it gets for them, so it just further highlights the unpredictability of the next election, whenever it does come.

I’ve talked to some Labour people who always said that “ah sure, no matter what hammering we’ll still come out of it the same size or slightly bigger than we were in 2007, so why not.” I think the Labour Members Forum was partly the realization for some that that will not come to pass. In fact, it is imperative for the future of coalition dynamics that Labour are thoroughly routed to show this is not acceptable behaviour after they got away with it after austerity coalitions in the 80s and the 90s.

I’m sure they had an “exit strategy” ready to use – pull the plug on FG(like the Greens) just after the locals(maybe suck SF into a short-term national unity government for a budget to spread the blame) and campaign the election as a defender of whatever the little austerity measure was(probably one that is important to their liberal base like the Greens with education).

If they are effectively wiped out *before* the locals then they are in serious trouble and that is the exit strategy out the window. I think current polls are showing that will be the case, and Labour will start to get very unpredictable from hereonin increasing their desparateness/vulnerability to opinion polls. Which means, maybe they’ll enact their exit strategy and election sooner than we think… meaning those seat projections might be a little relevant after all.


6. EamonnCork - February 29, 2012

I think it’s more likely that Labour will take the more traditional route of coalition parties. It’s a kind of vicious circle, the more your poll ratings dip the more you become convinced that it’s imperative to hang on for a while until they recover. Which is followed by a further dip at which point the argument for staying in is that there’s no point forcing an election in which you’re going to be decimated. Eventually a kind of acceptance of the inevitable trashing takes hold and the Parliamentary Party decide that seeing as they’re not going to be back in power for a while after the next election they might as well enjoy the spoils of office for as long as possible.
I think they’ll see out most if not all of the full term. Their behaviour so far shows that the main motivation of the senior figures is that it’s their turn after being out of power for almost a decade and a half. They’re not going to throw it all away. You could see the likes of Howlin and Gilmore doing a John O’Donoghue on it and not standing in the next election anyway.
I must get hold of the book, the earlier ones Mair did were fascinating, especially for the amateur psephologist.


WorldbyStorm - February 29, 2012

Yeah, Mair was great.

Here’s an interesting thought, not often remembered now, but Labour actually withdrew from the mid 80s coalition in 87 and went down to 12 seats from 16. Perhaps their worst result in the latter quarter of the 20th century. I wonder if that’s one of the reasons subsequent parties have been very uneager to leave too precipitously, both the PDs and the GP seemed pathologically terrified of doing so.

Of course the problem with that is that the PDs were founded in 86 and that distorted the electoral terrain – though perhaps M. McDowell is thinking similar thoughts…


irishelectionliterature - February 29, 2012

Yep in 1987 Labour were being squeezed by the PDs and the charisma of O’Malley. Part of the Labour vote would have been the ‘Liberal Agenda’ , something They shared with the PDs.
They were also being squeezed from the Left by The Workers Party.
In 1985 Labour only won 2 seats on Dublin City Council and had a very poor Local Elections, so they were being punished by the electorate even before the establishment of the PDs. The PDs meant that there was another home for the anyone but FF vote.


Julian Assandwich - February 29, 2012

16 to 12 was disastrous for a Labour Party after 4+ years of implementing austerity? It looks like they rebuilt over the next Dail, clawed back a few seats and then rode the ‘Spring Tide’ to their greatest ever result in 1992. I’d say they’d bite your hand off for that result this time around.

That is a salient point about parties holding on until the last possible moment when hopefully things will be better. I think that’s the LibDem’s plan. Ruairi Quinn was frothing at the mouth last summer for more austerity, lambasting his government for not cutting fast enough. I think he was hoping if they did that, they could have a last neutral or even nice budget or enough time would have passed from the worst attacks that people would have moved on. The global double dip and the eu referendum terms have certainly canceled that as a possible outcome.


WorldbyStorm - February 29, 2012

That’s such a cynical ploy on their part if true, and as you say, the recession plus has put paid to it.

And in any case I think any pol would be mad to think economic cycles, even/particularly distorted dysfunctional ones like this would align with electoral cycles.


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