The Irish General Election: A Guide for Folks From A Land Beyond the Wave
Ireland is currently going to the polls to elect a new government, four years after our last election in 2016. For Irish people who’ve seen plenty of these already, everything is naturally quite intuitive. But to our friends across the world, it might seem very confusing – what do all these Irish words mean? Why is everyone talking about how important ‘transfers’ and ‘preferences’ are? And was someone really kicked out of a polling station for being dressed up as a stick of celery? (I’ll answer that last one first – yes, it’s hilarious and very Ireland!) Here’s a run-down of the rest.
Ireland is a multi-party democracy, and governments tend to be coalitions of two or more parties that, combined, reach a majority of seats. 80 seats will be needed in the 2020 election to form a government, and it is highly unlikely that any party will achieve this on their own. This means that both large and small parties tend to matter in Irish politics. Here’s the main ones to watch:
Fine Gael (Irish for ‘Family of the Irish’)
Fine Gael is the current governing party in Ireland, led by Leo Varadkar who has been Taoiseach (that’s our word for Prime Minister) since 2017. Fine Gael are one of Ireland’s two biggest traditional parties, and are generally placed on the centre-right of the political spectrum.
The party currently governs as a minority government with the support of independent politicians, but previously led the government from 2011-2016 in coalition with the Labour Party.
Fianna Fáil (Irish for ‘Soldiers of Destiny’)
Fianna Fáil are currently the main opposition party, although the Fine Gael majority government is reliant on a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement with Fianna Fáil to govern. This essentially means that Fianna Fáil abstains, rather than votes against, on matters of confidence (e.g. the election of Taoiseach and continuity of government) and supply (budgetary issues, essentially). Fianna Fáil is the second of Ireland’s main traditional parties, and are usually placed on the centre or centre-right of the political spectrum. Their leader since 2011 has been Micheál Martin, a former cabinet minister in previous Fianna Fáil-led governments.
If that sounds like the two big parties are very similar then you’re not alone – many Irish people would agree with you! It’s often said that the differences between the parties are very slight, with some even claiming they barely exist. My own view is that differences do exist, but they’re subtle. Fianna Fáil have generally had a more centrist approach to economic policy than Fine Gael, who tend to be a bit more fond of markets. Fine Gael, meanwhile, are the more socially liberal of the two parties – a difference that is a bit clearer in recent years, particularly on the recent issue of abortion, where much of Fianna Fáil take a conservative view.
Sinn Féin (Irish for ‘We Ourselves’)
Sinn Féin are the second main opposition party, and if this year’s polling is to be believed, they’re set to have a good election. Sinn Féin are a left-wing party that describe themselves as ‘democratic socialists’. To date, Ireland has not yet had a left-led government, so a strong showing for Sinn Féin could be the start of a shift in the political landscape. Sinn Féin are also strongly in favour of a United Ireland – the unification of Northern Ireland (currently in the UK) with Ireland to form a single state.
The party is controversial, however. During The Troubles in Northern Ireland, the party was the political wing of the IRA – a terrorist organization determined to bring about a United Ireland by force. Until recently many Sinn Féin politicians were confirmed or strongly suspected to have been members of the IRA, and there remains a question mark over the relationship the party currently has with republican organizations. However, the leadership of Mary Lou McDonald – who was not involved in the Troubles – since 2018 appears to have strengthened the party’s image, and today’s voting could see them make strong gains.
Smaller left-wing parties – Greens, Labour, SocDems, Sol-PBP, Independents4Change
Outside the three main parties, a number of small, mostly left-leaning parties are also contesting the election.
The Green Party is a fairly typical environmentalist grouping – they’re primarily concerned about climate change and conservation. On social and economic issues they tend to be progressive/centre-left – supporting the recent liberalization of Ireland’s abortion laws and favouring increased spending on public transit, healthcare and public housing, to give a few examples.
The Labour Party is a classic European-style social democratic group that have been around since 1912. They have frequently been junior coalition partners in Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael-led governments, most recently from 2011 to 2016 with Fine Gael. The party paid a heavy political price for this, however – falling from 37 seats in 2011 to just 7 in 2016. Prior to the rise of Sinn Féin, they were Ireland’s largest left-leaning political force.
The Social Democrats, or SocDems, are an offshoot of the Labour party, mostly driven by dissatisfaction with the 2011-2016 coalition policy. They’re also a social democratic party, so at this point it should be clear that the Irish seem to like a lot of similarities in our parties! They could fairly be described as being a touch more to the left than the Labour party, but not reaching as far as Sinn Féin.
Solidarity-People Before Profit, or Sol-PBP, is a hard left grouping that formed from mergers of other socialist parties. The party is strongly anti-capitalist, featuring some genuine communists, and was also heavily involved in recent efforts to legalize same-sex marriage and abortion in Ireland. The radicalism of the group has also made them unwilling to engage in ‘normal’ coalition politics thus far, though it is possible that they could support a Sinn Féin-led government.
Finally, Independents4Change is a collection of independent, left-wing politicians that have come together in a formal alliance. While registered as a party, the politicians in this grouping still maintain a strong independent streak, and the party registration is mostly to benefit from technical rules of the Dáil about allocating speaking rights and such. The groups are generally socialist in outlook.
Outside of the above, many Irish politicians stand on their own terms, unaffiliated with any political party. These independent politicians tend to make up a sizable chunk of the Dáil – in 2016, they collectively won 19 seats. Independents come from a range of political backgrounds – from socialists to traditional conservatives to centrists. They are frequently involved in the coalitions that form governments, either on their own terms or as loose groupings like the Independent Alliance.
Ireland’s Voting System – PR-STV
The other big thing to clear up is how voting in Ireland actually works. Ireland has a relatively unique voting system to achieve proportional representation. It’s called the ‘Single Transferable Vote’, and it works like this (warning, long explanation ahead!):
Each constituency (equivalent to ridings or districts) in Ireland has multiple seats up for grabs, between 3 and 5. Voters get a ballot paper with every candidate contesting the constituency, and are instructed to vote in order of your preference. You give your favourite candidate a 1, your next a 2, your third a 3, and so on for as long as you like.
When it comes to counting, votes are first organized based on the first preference – the candidate you put as number 1. The headline voting figures that will be reported in the media will be these figures – what share of first preference votes did a candidate get, and what did the party as a whole get?
Next, the ‘quota’ is calculated. This is the number of votes a candidate needs to reach in order to be elected. Because Irish constituencies are multi-member, this isn’t a majority or the highest plurality as in the UK or US. Instead, it’s the total number of votes, divided by the number of seats plus one, and plus one more vote. So, in a 4-seat constituency that had a total of 20,000 votes cast, the quota would be (20,000/(4+1)) + 1, giving us a quota of 4,001.
Now, any candidate who meets or exceeds the quota is deemed elected, and will become a TD – that’s Teachta Dála, a member of the Irish parliament, the Dáil. It is at this point that the additional preferences kick in.
Take our above example – suppose Candidate A won 4,501 first preference votes. The votes above the quota – 500 in this case – are deemed a ‘surplus’. With A elected, these additional votes are now distributed to the rest of the field, based on who voters marked as their number 2 preference. Which ballot papers exactly get physically transferred is tricky, but basically they’re given out proportionally based on the 2nd preference.
So suppose voters for A also tended to like candidate B (maybe they’re in the same party), and 60% of them put B as number 2. B is then given an extra 300 votes from A’s ‘transfers’. This continues until the entire surplus is given out.
Now, suppose nobody else has cleared the quota, even after surpluses are given out. The next step is to eliminate the candidate with the fewest votes, let’s say that’s C. C’s votes are now distributed based on second preferences, just like A’s surplus votes are.
This process then continues through candidates – elimination, transfer, election, surplus transfer – until one of two things happen.
First, enough candidates may reach the quota to be deemed elected so that all seats are filled. At this point, the election in that constituency is finished, woohoo!
More often, though, is that some seats have been filled by reaching the quota. However, there’s still, say, two seats left to fill, but also only two candidates left – neither of whom have reached a quota. What happens in this case is that these candidates are just deemed elected anyway – there’s no more votes to be transferred, and the seats have to be filled, so they’ll do. The reason this tends to happen is because most voters don’t mark out the entire ballot sheet. They may just mark a first, second and third preference, and leave it there. This leads to ‘attrition’ of votes as the count goes on, and so only a portion of surplus or elimination votes have another preference marked that can be used to transfer it.
The Take-Home Message
The idea behind STV is that the candidates who get elected are the most broadly preferred across a range of voters – if you didn’t get your favourite candidate elected, then maybe you at least got your second or third preference. This also tends to result in the Dáil being proportionally representative of the votes cast, though the rules of STV don’t require or guarantee this. Indeed, it is likely that this election will result in a Dáil that isn’t proportionally representative.
Because of the multi-member constituencies and ability to mark multiple preferences, this means that bigger parties tend to run two or three candidates in each constituency to maximize their seat numbers. However in this election, Sinn Féin decided to only run 42 candidates across 39 constituencies, compared to Fine Gael’s 82 and Fianna Fáil’s 84. Because of an unpredicted surge in the polls, this may result in Sinn Féin winning far fewer seats than a strictly proportional allocation based on their vote share would suggest, with other parties benefiting instead.
Given the multi-stepped voting process, it is likely that results for the Irish election won’t be finalized until late next week. This means we’re in for an interesting few days of watching transfers and seeing if our favourite politicians make it in to the next Dáil or not!
For full transparency – I laid out my own voting preferences and rationale here.