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Irish Political System

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The Irish Political Party System


One major reason why the Irish political party system has been very stable for the past 77 years is because it has effectively served the needs of the country. For the purpose of this paper the term effective will mean that the parties in combination have been able to meet the demands of the people and provide for a stable and democratic political system. The Irish party system and the major parties are very difficult to classify. The Irish party system does not conform to the typical patterns found in most other Western democracies. Three features in particular stand out in differentiating the Irish party system from others. The first is the lack of any "clear cleavage, rooted in Irish social structure" that underpins the party system (Gallagher, 1985, p. 1). The second feature is the fact that the two main parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, are very similar in their policies, both being conservative in their orientation. The third difference grows out of the strength of the two main parties--the ongoing weakness of the left (Gallagher, 1985, p. 1). These characteristics do indeed set the Irish party system off from more typical patterns.

The purpose of this paper is to show that the political system is stable by providing a brief background of the Irish political system, followed by a description of the three main political parties--Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, and the Irish Labour Party, including their structure, ideology, and goals. Some of the more important minor parties that have influenced political life will be briefly considered as well. Finally, the three main parties will be compared in terms of supporters, competition for votes, and the coalitions that they have formed in the past and at the present time. The paper will conclude with a summary and show that one reason why the Irish party system is stable is because it has served the country effectively.


The basic divisions in the Irish party system go back to the Anglo-Irish Treaty that was signed in December, 1921 (Gallagher, 1985, p. 1; Gallagher, Laver, and Mair, 1995, p. 313). In the 19th century a succession of parties in Ireland had articulated a desire for greater autonomy for Ireland within the union of Great Britain and Ireland. They aimed for the restoration of an Irish parliament, such as the one that had existed for 18 years at the end of the previous century. A minority of the Irish wanted an end to the Union altogether, with an independent Irish Republic with no links to Great Britain. These two strands of nationalism co-existed uneasily with the former pursuing its aim ineffectually by parliamentary activity at Westminister while the latter equally ineffectually used campaigns of violence and, on occasion, attempted uprisings (Gallagher, 1985, pp. 2-3; Wallace, 1986, pp. 81-87).

In April of 1916 the Easter Rising in Dublin changed the Irish political situation forever (Ayearst, 1970, p. 34; Gallagher, 1985, p. 3). This effort to remove the British by force failed, but it set the stage for confrontation and conflict after World War I. The groups favoring autonomy within the United Kingdom had declined while the separatist party, Sinn Fein, gained increasing support. In the general election in December 1918 in the United Kingdom, Sinn Fein won 73 of the 105 Irish seats in the House of Commons. Sinn Fein now had an "undisputed hegemony in the twenty-six counties" of the south that were to become the Irish Free State (Gallagher, 1985, p. 3). These victors, instead of taking their seats at Wesminster, set up the Dail Eireann in Dublin in January of 1919 as the parliament of an independent Ireland.

After much fighting and conflict between the British military and paramilitary forces on the one hand and supporters of Irish independence on the other, the Anglo-Irish treaty was signed in December of 1921. The 26 southern counties became the Irish Free State with dominion status within the British Empire (Ayhearst, 1970, p. 38). The leaders of Sinn Fein were divided over whether to sign the treaty or not. The treaty failed to provide for a totally independent, all Ireland Republic (the six counties in Ulster--Northern Ireland--were not included in the Irish Free State). Divisions over the treaty were to become the basis for the current divisions in Irish politics to this day. Fianna Fail was descended from the groups that opposed accepting the treaty while Fine Gael has a direct line of descent from the supporters, reluctant though they were, of the treaty (Gallagher, 1985, p. 3; Steiner, 1997, p. 44). The disputes over the treaty eventually resulted in fighting between the supporters and opponents of the treaty. The groups accepting the treaty eventually won out, and in the spring of 1923, those opposing the treaty finally accepted the situation (Ayearst, 1970, pp. 40-41). The division over the treaty thus became the basis for the two major parties, which were structurally and historically internal factions of the old pan-nationalist party (Gallagher, 1985, p. 7). The third larger party, the Irish Labour party, is different in that it is not a product of the struggles over acceptance of the treaty. It was based in the Irish trade union movement and founded in the early years of the 20th century. It is the only current party that predates the treaty dispute, and it basically remained aloof from the debate (Manning, 1978, p. 69).

Irish Political Parties

Fianna Fail

Fianna Fail is the party that grew out of the treaty rejectionists, and it has been the largest political party in Ireland since 1932. At one time its members even claimed that they were a national movement and not just a political party. This claim is actually a credible statement since the party has had a deep impact on Irish society. Its influence has reached almost every area of Irish life (Allen, 1997, p. 1). Fianna Fail actually means Soldiers (or Warriors) of Destiny. It is symbolic of Irish legend and history with "the romantic appellation of a body of warriors and huntsmen who constituted a guard and task force of the ancient Irish high kings" (Ayearst, 1970, p. 66). Fianna Fail's supporters come from all walks of life, as the party is rooted deeply in the Irish society. It draws support from upper class, middle class, and working class voters, as well as among rural voters, and there is a tradition of family loyalty to the party through generations of voters (Ayearst, 1970, p. 162). Thousands of working class voters have seen this party as their main hope for advancement (Allen, 1997, p. 6). Even the few Protestants in the Republic



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