by Frank Schnittger
Wed Dec 8th, 2010 at 05:20:31 AM EST
[Last week]'s Irish Sun Red C opinion poll estimates party support levels as follows (2007 General Election results in brackets):
Fianna Fail 13% (42%) -29%
Fine Gael 32% (27%) +5%
Labour 24% (10%) +14%
Green Party 3% (5%) -2%
Sinn Fein 16% (7%) +9%
Independents/Others 11% (9%) +2%
In other words, Fianna Fail, which has led Irish Governments for a total of 60 years since 1932 (and Fine Gael for the other 19) faces the prospect of becoming the fourth largest party in the state with Labour and Sinn Fein picking up most of their 29% loss of support.
What is also clear from these opinion poll results is that the National political dispensation, which arose out of Independence from Britain and a civil war (over the non-inclusion of Northern Ireland in the independence Treaty) in 1922 is unravelling, and Sinn Fein is recapturing some of the revolutionary credentials which led to it being the dominant political force in the last years of British rule. Angela Merkel had better not come looking for the Irish to pass any Referendum on a new EU Treaty any time soon. The next time the Irish will likely reject EU overtures to facilitate another EU Treaty as firmly as the Brits were rebuffed and ejected in 1922. That is the damage that the ECB is doing to the European project in Ireland.
from the diaries - Nomad
Adrian Kavanagh on politicalreform.ie applies those national average % changes in political support equally to each of Ireland's 43 multi-seat Single Transferable Vote Constituencies and concludes that the number of seats which would be won by each party based on that level of support is as follows (2007 General election results in brackets):
Fianna Fail 12 (78) -66
Fine Gael 67 (51) +16
Labour 48 (20) +28
Green Party 0 (6) -6
Sinn Fein 24 (4) +20
Independents/Others 15 (7) +8
Based on these figures, and because most of the Independents are likely to be left leaning, it is just about possible that a left wing Government comprising Labour, Sinn Fein, and 12 of the 15 Independents could achieve the 84 Seats required to form a Dail Majority and elect a Labour Taoiseach.
However a number of severe health warnings need to be applied to these figures and any conclusions derived from them. For the reasons I outline below, I consider a Labour/Sinn Fein Government to be an unlikely outcome of the election. What follows is perhaps primarily of interest to political junkies interested in the internal dynamics of the Irish political scene and the intricacies of the the multi-seat single transferable vote system of election. However for reasons which I hope will become clear, these have important implications for the future of the European project in Ireland.
Firstly, under Ireland's Single Transferable Vote System of (semi) proportional representation, people vote for a candidate rather than a party. Thus many Fianna Fail sitting TD's (MPs) may survive based on their personal popularity or track record within the constituency, and despite any drag caused by their party affiliation. (Candidates have been known to drop their party affiliation from all their election posters/literature if they perceive it to be a negative for them).
Secondly, Labour and Sinn Fein may simply not have enough well known candidates in each constituency to maximise their actual vote in each constituency. People who tell a pollster they are voting for a particular party may still actually vote for the candidates they know rather than candidates they don't know regardless of their party affiliation.
Thirdly, Labour and Sinn Fein may not have sufficiently strong party organisations in each constituency to ensure that they (a) attract strong candidates, (b) get out the vote, (c) spread the vote as equally between their candidates as possible to prevent one of their candidates being eliminated in an early count and thus not able to attract later transfers of lower preference votes from other candidates as they are eliminated.
For example, Sinn Fein got 40% of the first preference vote in the recent Donegal bye-election, with both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael getting approximately 20% of the vote each. However the quota for getting elected in a three seat Constituency like Donegal South-West is 25% +1 vote (i.e. just sufficient to make it impossible for 4 candidates to reach the quota.) Thus if Pearse Doherty, the high profile and successful Sinn Fein candidate gets (say) 30% of the first preference vote, with a second Sinn Fein candidate getting another 10% of the vote it is virtually impossible for Sinn Fein to win 2 seats in the General.
This is because when Pearse Doherty is deemed elected (having passed the quota), only his Surplus of 5% (being 30%-25% quota = 5%) is available for distribution to other candidates in accordance with the voters second preference on his ballots. Typically these second preference are scattered around all the remaining candidates and perhaps only c. 50% of the surplus goes to his actual party colleague. The second Sinn Fein Candidate would then only get c. 50% of the 5% surplus = 2.5% of the vote to add to his first round total of 10% = 12.5% and well below the Fianna Fain and Fine Gael candidates 20% of the vote.
Of course if Fianna Fail are stupid and nominate two candidates in an attempt to retain the two seats in Donegal South West they won in 2007 and their candidates are equally strong/weak, getting about 10% of the vote each; then there is a strong possibility that both will lose. This is because whichever candidate is eliminated first may only transfer 50% of his votes to his party colleague resulting in the remaining Fianna Fail Candidate being marooned on c. 10+5%=15% of the vote - well short of the 25% quota, and with little prospect of getting significant transfers from other candidates/parties.
Maximising the number of seats you can win based on a given level of support is called vote management and is engaged in by all political parties. Basically a party needs to set a realistic target for the number of seats it can win in a constituency and then nominate that number (and only that number) of candidates. Thus (in the example above) Sinn Fein should nominate two candidates and try to ensure that both get about 20% of the vote. This requires strong party organisation/discipline with Pearse Doherty agreeing to encourage many Sinn Fein party supporters to vote for the second Sinn Fein candidate rather than himself. Typically this is done by carving up the Constituency between the two candidates (often based on their home areas) and asking party supporter to give their first preference vote to their local Sinn Fein candidate and their second preference to the other Sinn Fein candidate from the other part of the constituency.
Parties can seek to maximise their seat gains by "balancing" their candidate slate in each constituency - i.e. selecting candidates from opposite ends of the constituency, having male/female split, strong national name recognition versus well known local community activist - or someone likely to attract votes from other candidates on their elimination - e.g. a candidate with strong "green" credentials who might pick up a lot of transfers on the elimination of the official Green Party candidate.
However smaller parties like Labour and Sinn Fein have very little experience of such vote management as they have generally only aspired to win one seat in any constituency. It is also against the personal interest of an established candidate to facilitate the selection of a strong running mate as it might put his/her own seat at risk. On rare occasions the vote management arrangements described above have backfired and the more established candidate has actually lost to the running mate he encouraged his supporters to vote for. On the last occasion there was a "wave" election in 1992, Labour actually only won 33 seats with 20% of the vote because they hadn't selected enough strong candidates (possibly due to resistance from established candidates not wanting to have strong running mates).
The reason I have gone into such detail into the electioneering process is because I do not believe that Adrian Kavanagh's seat projections based on the national party support levels identified by the poll are likely to be accurate. Firstly he applies the change in national support levels equally across all 43 constituencies (because a 1,000 respondent poll cannot be meaningfully be split into and analysed by 43 constituencies) but this necessarily misses all sorts of regional variations and local factors - the personal profiles of established candidates, party organisation, candidate selection and slate optimisation etc.
The other reason why the election, even if it does result in a Labour/Sinn Fein landslide, is unlikely to result in a Labour/Sinn Fein Government is that Labour have pledged not to work with Sinn Fein because of their past paramilitary associations. (Party Leader Eamonn Gilmore and many of his senior colleagues original came from the "Official" wing of Sinn Fein which split from Provisional Sinn Fein over the use of violence amid much personal animosity).
It is not, of course, unknown for parties to change their tune once the election is over. Fianna Fail was famously opposed to all coalition arrangements until it became clear it no longer had any prospect of forming a single party Government. Moreover Labour have frequently entered into a pre-election pact with Fine Gael to create the sense of an alternative Government in waiting and with a joint electoral programme. I think it unlikely they will do so on this occasion (because of their differences on the bail-out) but it is unlikely they will want to legitimise Sinn Fein as a party of Government (as Sinn Féin are now their major rival for left leaning or anti-establishment votes).
By far and away the most likely outcome of the General election is therefore a Fine Gael/Labour Coalition led (on the above figures for party post election seat numbers) by Fine Gael Leader Enda Kenny. However the Labour Leader, Eamonn Gilmore, is much more popular, and in the Red C poll was the choice for Taoiseach of 41% of the electorate - with 25% supporting Enda Kenny and 8% the current Taoiseach, Brian Cowen. Thus, if the election is dominated by national issues, as it will be, the voters preference for Taoiseach may play a powerful role in boosting the Labour vote even amongst voters who would normally support Fine Gael.
A huge amount will therefore depend on how the campaign unfolds - firstly on what detailed measures are contained in the Budget and how these effect large groups of swing voters, secondly on whether the budget is passed and with whose support - Fine Gael may abstain because they are ideologically as neo-liberal as Fianna Fail, and thirdly on how the campaign is conducted and managed by each of the party leaders and party organisations. In my view Fine Gael will concede the high ground to Labour if they abstain on the Budget and could well lose their position as the larger party and their right to nominate their Leader as Taoiseach if they fail to oppose the Budget and the economic philosophy it incorporates.
The Sinn Féin President, Gerry Adams, has said he will resign both his seats in the British Westminster Parliament and in the Northern Ireland Assembly in order to contest the Irish General Election in the Louth Constituency - a fact which may have contributed to the decision of the Justice Minster, Dermot Ahern to retire and not contest that constituency again. In the past Dermot Ahern was considered a likely successor to the current Leader of Fianna Fail, Brian Cowen, so his decision to retire, allegedly on health grounds, is also an indication of how Fianna Fail rates its own chances in the election.
In the past, Gerry Adam's strong Belfast roots, accent, and lack of southern local knowledge has not played well in the south. But Sinn Fein has lacked a strong leader in the South and his presence in the election as a candidate and Party Leader will undoubtedly add profile and credibility to the Sinn Fein campaign. If southern parties can insist that Sinn Fein should be allowed to participate in power sharing administrations in Northern Ireland, on what basis can they argue Sinn Fein is not entitled to form part of an Irish Government especially as they have not re-engaged in significant violence since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998?
A Labour led Government either with the participation of Sinn Fein or looking over their shoulders at a Sinn Fein opposition gaining ground at their expense as they implement austerity measures with Fine Gael is thus a distinctly possible outcome of the election based on the sort of figures we are seeing in recent opinion poll trends. Either way, the IMF/ECB deal will be seen as a Fianna Fail deal to be resiled from as much as possible and to be blamed for every unpopular Government measure. The EU will come to be seen with the same hostility as this much reviled Fianna Fail Government and Ireland's honeymoon relationship with the EU will be well and truly over.