Just How Big A Cliff Did Fianna Fáil Fall Off?

I’ve been following the recent Irish general election quite closely (those of you who’ve suffered through my various tweets and posts can feel free to put in a: “No shit! Really?” here).

It’s not news that Fianna Fáil suffered a disaster of epic proportions. But I thought it might be nice to knock up a graph showing just how badly a catastrophe had befallen them. (It’s not a terribly good graph. I’m not sure lines are the best way to go here, and it would be nice if the X axis was proportionally spaced. But I think it does the job.)

Here it is:

(Click on the graph to show it full size).

A few things you should note.

1) Ireland has a pretty proportional STV electoral system. To win more than 50% of the seats in such a system is a very, very impressive feat. Fianna Fáil did it several times.

2) Although Ireland had two major parties, it wasn’t a two-party system in the popular sense of that phrase. If you define the winner of an election as the party that gains either the most seats or the most votes, Fianna Fáil won every single election between 1932 and 2007, on both of those counts. For Fianna Fáil, “defeat” was when they were still in first place, but with a number of seats less than the total of those parties in second and third places, thus enabling a viable coalition to be formed that didn’t involve them.

3) Fianna Fáil was so dominant that it not only managed to form the government for 61 out of 79 years, for most of those years it did so as a single-party government, not needing to form a coalition to achieve power until 1989. (Again, not an easy feat under PR).

4) Between 1932 and 2007, the lowest share of first preference vote it ever got was 39.1% in 1992.  In the same period, the highest vote ever achieved by the second party Fine Gael was 39.2%, in 1981 and 1982. (e.g. Fianna Fáil’s worst ever post 1932 vote was only a fraction lower than Fine Gaels’ best ever vote). And even in the “landslide” of 2011, Fine Gael only got a vote share of 36.1%.

And then in 2011 Fianna Fáil lost. Hugely. Epically. And it’s a defeat made more marked by just how dominant they previously were.

This wasn’t a two-party system. It was more akin to places/times like Northern Ireland through most of the twentieth century, where the Official Ulster Unionist party always won, or apartheid South Africa, where the Nationalist Party always won.

Why?

Well perhaps one thing Fianna Fáil had in common with those parties was that it wasn’t based on ideology and didn’t sit on the left-right scale. It was instead based on identity, a particular sort of patriotism, and a general populist appeal, thus enabling it to be all things to all men, and allowing it to be broadly centre-right in policy and yet still achieve widespread support among working people. In that, it was perhaps similar to the Gaullists in France and the Peronistas in Argentina.

And then of course, there was the appeal of power itself. I read somewhere that Fianna Fáil was almost like a career and life enabling alternative to university; those who hadn’t had the benefit of an education could still “better themselves” by joining Fianna Fáil and making their way up its ranks. Loyalty was achieved not through altruistic joint-purpose but though collaborative shared-achievement.

(A bit like joining the Masons or the Rotary Club, except those latter two don’t stand in elections).

But for that to work you have to keep winning. I think we can probably say that the alternative university is now closed. One look at the graph makes it clear. Whatever Fianna Fáil was, it ain’t that now.

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