Elections to the European Parliament in the Republic of Ireland were held on Friday, 23 May, on the same day as local government (regional) elections and two national parliamentary bye-elections. This fact helped to boost voter turn-out over what it might otherwise have been.
Ireland utilises the Single Transferable Vote (STV) form of proportional representation, whereby voters rank candidates according to their personal preferences (first preference, second preference, third preference, etc.) regardless of party membership, and in multi-seat constituencies. Thus, in a 4-seat constituency, if a party fields 3 candidates in the hope of winning 2 or 3 seats, those candidates are forced to compete against each other, as well as candidates of rival parties, in order to secure a seat. STV thus works against party discipline.
STV also notoriously accentuates and exaggerates the impact of two prominent aspects of Irish political culture that have always worked against a traditionally weak Irish left. The first is a marked tendency towards Personalism – the fact that many Irish voters cast their votes on the basis of the perceived personal qualities of candidates rather than the attractiveness of party programmes or party loyalty (let alone ideological cohesion). The second is a marked tendency towards Localism – a preference for candidates with strong local roots in one’s immediate community other those who might be better qualified but lack local ties.
STV also necessitates good vote management strategies on the part of Irish parties. Success in winning seats often depends not only on the number of first preferences won; sometimes, even more important, is an ability to win second, third and subsequent vote transfers from candidates of other parties. In 2009 European Parliament elections, the small Socialist Party fielded only one candidate – the popular, widely-admired and respected Joe Higgins in Dublin. He has many years of long, hard struggle on behalf of the Dublin working-class communities under his belt. Although his vote in Dublin averaged out as only 2.7% of the national vote, combined with strong transfers from other candidates it was enough to secure his election. By contrast, Sinn Féin polled more than 11% of the national vote in 2009, but this vote was pretty evenly spread throughout the country and the inability of SF to attract sufficient transfers from other parties meant that it failed to win any seats – losing its Dublin MEP to the Socialist Party.
These conditions do not hold in 2014. First, Higgins stood down as MEP in 2011 and his replacement – the young and relatively unknown Paul Murphy – does have anything like the charisma or personal appeal of Higgins. Second, the rival Marxist party – People Before Profit Alliance – scorned SP appeals to support Murphy and is fielding a strong European candidate of its own in the form of popular local government councillor Brid Smith. The left vote will therefore be split and maximum discipline of these two candidates in getting their voters to transfer to each other is needed if either is to have any chance of winning. Frankly, this looks unlikely. Indeed, the Socialist Party has publicly attacked the PBPA for `political sectarianism’ in fielding a candidate at all, which does not bode well for maximum cooperation. Third, the Sinn Féin has increased its vote markedly since 2009. That party has chosen young candidates in the Republic of Ireland, unconnected in voters’ eyes with its paramilitary past (unlike in Northern Ireland where its candidate is a convicted former IRA prisoner). SF’s candidates in the Republic of Ireland project an image of youth, modernity and moderation. The party is proving much more successful this time at attracting transfer votes from other parties. In Dublin, at least, it may not even need transfers – it looks set to top the poll in Dublin with around 20%
Early indications from the local government elections show that the anti-austerity wave that has without doubt swept over Ireland has benefitted independent (non-party) candidates, many of whom have strong local profiles, more than any other force. In the local elections, Independents polled 28.4%, while the two main political parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael (both centre-right) polled 24.8% and 23.8% respectively. Sinn Féin were in third place with 15.5%. The Labour Party suffered a complete electoral collapse, polling 7.5%. The two Marxist parties of the left – the Socialist Party (Trotskyist) and the People Before Profit Alliance (also Trotskyist-led) – both secured the election of many new local government representative in Dublin, but on a combined share of the national vote that looks likely to be less than 2%. The Socialist Party, however, scored a spectacular success in the Dublin West national parliamentary bye-election. Its candidate, Ruth Coppinger, who had a very high local profile, polled over 20% of the first preference votes and won the seat, defeating strong challenges from both Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin. This vote shows that, with a candidate with strong local roots, there remains a strong potential bedrock of support for a Marxist class-based politics, as opposed to the left-sounding radical nationalism of Sinn Féin – in Dublin at least.
The Campaign themes and the parties
The campaign for the 2014 European Parliament elections in the republic of Ireland has been dominated by one theme: austerity. The sweeping cuts imposed by the Troika upon Ireland has provoked a huge popular backlash. The main targets of this backlash have been the two parties that have governed Ireland since 2011 – Fine Gael and the Labour Party. Above all, the Labour Party – seen as betraying the poor and the marginalised – has borne the brunt of the backlash and is facing electoral annihilation. Specific government policies that have incurred popular ire include: the imposition of a water tax on households that is currently around Euro 240 per household but likely to rise to more than twice that; the imposition of a property tax (essentially a tax on home owners); the introduction of cuts to pensions and welfare benefits; and the failure to address crises in housing, health and employment. In addition, outside of Dublin, the crisis in Irish agriculture and fishing has been a recurrent issue in the campaign.
Fine Gael, the dominant party in government and a Christian Democrat party allied to the European Peoples’ Party, campaigned on the basis of its `courage’ in providing strong government and in implementing the `necessary’ austerity measures to revive the Irish economy. Its share of the vote is likely to be well down on the 29.1% it polled in 2009, although it retains a solid core of bourgeois support.
Fianna Fáil, also on the centre-right, is a populist nationalist party (although somewhat incongruously it now sits with ALDE in the European Parliament), traditionally associated with the Catholic church. It has tentatively begun to secularise in recent years. It dominated Irish politics for much of the period from 1932 until 2011, throughout which period its vote rarely fell below 40%. In 2011, embroiled in corruption scandals and roundly blamed by Irish voters for the crisis of the Irish economy, it suffered an unprecedented political collapse, seeing its share of the vote fall to less than 17%. Even by the time of the European elections in 2009, it has sunk to 24.1%. It has since recovered ground, but is still `contaminated’ in the eyes of many of those who used to support it. Many of its nationalist and working-class voters have switched to Sinn Féin or Independent (non-party, generally populist or localist) candidates.
The Labour Party (S&D) has been in coalition government with Fine Gael since 2011 and is bearing the brunt of popular disgust with austerity policies. Labour’s participation in government has been a disaster. It faces electoral wipe-out now. It polled 13.9% in 2009 and won 3 MEPs. It is likely to win around 6% and no seats this time. Its campaign was reduced to trying to defend its implementation of austerity policies against attacks from all other parties.
The Greens faced a terrible result in 2009 (just 1.9% and no seats), when they suffered from participation in coalition with Fianna Fáil. They have since recovered their sense of purpose as an opposition party to some extent and have benefitted from Labour collapse, above all in Dublin. They have an outside chance of a seat in Dublin.
The Left and Sinn Féin
In the 2009 European Parliament elections, the small Socialist Party – a class-based Marxist party of Trotskyist inspiration – surprised many observers of Irish politics by scoring a real triumph in Dublin. Its popular leader, Joe Higgins, polled more than 12% of the first preferences in Dublin, winning a seat in the Dublin constituency (at the expense of Sinn Féin). He sat with the GUE/NGL group in the EP. Joe Higgins stood down in 2011 and his EP seat is being defended by the young party activist who replaced him, Paul Murphy. The 31-year old Murphy is much less well-known and will struggle to hold the seat, especially as a rival Trotskyist-led group – the People Before Profit Alliance (PBPA)- decided against supporting his candidacy, instead chosing to field the popular Dublin councillor, Brid Smith, as its own candidate.
Both Marxist parties ran vigorous, class-based campaigns, emphasising the fight against water and housing taxes, poverty and unemployment, women’s rights and gay rights, environmental issues, and class inequality and social injustice. Polls suggested that they could poll between 15% and 20% in Dublin but that the vote will be split evenly between them, fatally damaging the chances of either winning Higgins’ 2009 seat.
Their likely failure does look like leaving Sinn Féin in a position to present itself as the voice of the Irish left in Europe. Without doubt, Sinn Féin (SF) has benefitted most from the anti-austerity backlash (after the Independents, of course). Its radical nationalism has enabled it to draw support from Fianna Fáil while its leftist rhetoric and anti-austerity message has proven attractive to former Labour voters. Its share of the votes in 2014 looks likely to rise by about 6 % points, compared to 2009 – up from 11.2 to around 17%. It should win 3 seats as opposed to none in 2009.
Sinn Féin is aligned to the GUE/NGL group in the European Parliament, even though many Irish socialists and Marxists do not see it as authentically or fully `left’. There is no doubt that it makes no claim to be a Marxist party, with party leader, Gerry Adams, once famously declaring that `there are no Marxists in Sinn Féin’. It does, however, describe itself as `left republican’ – the term `republican’ tending to denote militant nationalism in the Irish context. It has combined calls for defence of national sovereignty and the `Irish national interest’ against any increase in EU powers, with strident and consistent anti-austerity policies. This combination has proven attractive to many Irish voters. Indeed, given the nature of Irish political culture, it is perhaps an easier combination for many anti-austerity voters to identify with than the class-based political ideology of the smaller Marxist parties.
Sinn Féin in the Republic of Ireland has chosen young or relatively inexperienced candidates who have no known association with the paramilitary past of the IRA and who project a modern and moderate image compared to its Northern leadership. This seems to have played well with voters in the Republic of Ireland. (By contrast, in Northern Ireland, where the party’s support is rooted entirely in its traditionalist advocacy of the Catholic Nationalist community, its outgoing and defending MEP, Martina Anderson, openly boasted on her election literature of her past as an imprisoned IRA member). Sinn Féin is likely to send 4 MEPs back to the European Parliament and to the GUE/NGL group – 3 from the Republic and 1 from Northern Ireland.
Elections to the European Parliament in the Republic of Ireland -2014. Total turn-out was 52.4%
Total votes (First Preference)
(% in 2009)
(Seats in 2009)
Radical Nationalist/ anti-austerity
People Before profit Alliance
Probably GUE/NGL if elected
Direct Democracy Ireland
Jan Van de Ven
“neither left nor right”; populist
Green party splinter group
(Others in 2009)
Richard Dunphy, University of Dundee
Find the commentary as pdf also on the right at "Documentation".
24 May 2014, 11:00 -- Exit polls show that the Irish Left has won at the European elections on May 23, as well as Independent candidates, who are on first place. Fine Gael (EPP group in the European Parliament) and Labour (S&D) loose.
Source & read more: article in the newspaper RTE
IN POWER: Fine Gael (right)
Radical left party in the EP: 1 seat of 12
Being historically linked to the Irish Republican Army (IRA), Sinn Féin is a socialist party and fights for the unification of the Irish Republic with Northern Ireland to form an independent country. The party has performed well in the 2011 general elections, winning 9.9% of the vote and 14 seats in the Irish Parliament. The Socialist (Trotskyist) Party was founded in 1996 and has reached 1.2% in 2011, holding two seats in the Irish Parliament.