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Irish Elections Past and Present

Irish Elections Then and Now        Gerry OShea

Fianna Fail(FF) was founded in 1926 by Eamon De Valera, better known just as Dev, after he led a split from the Sinn Fein(SF) Party when it decided at its annual convention to reject his motion to end the policy of abstention from the Dail.  SF leaders at the time argued that to enter parliament would be a betrayal of their solemn pledge of fealty to the 32-county Irish republic – a noble aspiration but a chimerical, unrealizable notion in those days.

The clause in the Anglo-Irish Treaty, negotiated by Michael Collins and his team, that obliged all TD’s to take an Oath of Allegiance to the English monarch was seen as a serious compromise of basic principles by many Republicans. Dev repudiated the Treaty mainly because of this clause, but in 1927 he led the FF deputies into Leinster House claiming that the abhorrent oath that they signed should be seen as “an empty formula.”

 We are likely to hear much more about the history of those momentous years as Irish people everywhere celebrate the achievements of the War of Independence and learn more about the disastrous civil war. However, it is indisputable that the proposed contentious Anglo-Irish Treaty was extensively debated in the Dail and was carried by a small majority of the members on January 7th 1922.

De Valera, who led the opposition in that vote, left the parliament in disgust and actively supported the Republican rebels in their military defiance of the democratic decision in favor of the Treaty, which was confirmed by the Irish people in a subsequent general election. Dev struggled to explain his controversial stand of setting aside the dictum that in a democracy the majority decision is binding, later justifying his stance by arrogantly claiming that the people did not have the right to be wrong.

Sean Lemass, who did a brilliant job organizing branches of the nascent new group called Fianna Fail all over the country, identified the party as promoting the rights of small farmers and the working class, which attracted widespread support, but to keep the hardline Republicans from the civil war days on board with his project he told them that Fianna Fail should be seen as only “a slightly constitutional party.”

After they won the 1932 general election there were rumors that some of the top people of the other Treaty party, Cumann na nGael, and especially W.T. Cosgrave, leader of the country for the first turbulent decade, would use the army to engineer a coup rather than hand over power to leaders that they viewed as lacking democratic credentials.

It seems that Cosgrave, much as he hated De Valera, insisted that for democracy to prevail in the new and vulnerable state, the wishes of the people as expressed in the ballot box had to be respected, irrespective of his opinion of the doubtful pedigree of Dev and his party.

Fianna Fail has been in power in Dublin for most of the time since their first victory in 1932, and the only internal challenge to democracy in Ireland came from the Blueshirt movement, ironically, led by prominent followers of Cosgrave’s party, which flirted with the fascism that engulfed much of Europe in the 1930’s.

Moving on to the recent general election in Dublin, we find that Dev’s Party, Fianna Fail, and Cosgrave’s descendants, now called Fine Gael, joined by Sinn Fein, which dropped its abstentionist policy in 1970, are all center stage as the results from  the various constituencies are assessed, focusing especially on who will form the next government.

 Fianna Fail, led by Micheal Martin lost 7 seats in the election and now holds 38; Fine Gael, headed by the current Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, had 47 TDs before going to the country but lost 12, so now he can only claim 35, and Sinn Fein - with Mary Lou McDonald at the helm - gained 15 seats to bring their total to 37 TDs. Smaller parties and independents make up the remainder of the 160 seats in the Dail.

Sinn Fein only nominated 42 candidates in the election because they were influenced by poor returns for the party in the local contests two years previously. If they had run more representatives, they could have taken up to eight additional seats. Instead most of the SF surpluses – important in the Proportional Representation system used in Ireland - fell to independent, mostly left-wing, candidates.

 Polls since the election confirm that the SF vote has increased even more over the last month or so. Mary Lou is the only party leader with the wind at her back.

However, despite its electoral success both of the other major parties have ruled out forming a government with SF. Fine Gael, since the foundation of the state and the civil war, has seen Sinn Fein as outside of their nationalist culture. It is most unlikely that Leo or any of the senior FG leaders would open the door to serious negotiations for a coalition government with SF.

Micheal Martin, rather surprisingly, has been equally categorical in rejecting an alliance with SF. Fianna Fail, which includes the identifying name of a Republican party in its masthead, is open to more left-wing progressive policies than FG, so working out a deal for government with SF seems quite plausible if serious negotiations got underway.

 However, the core FF objection relates to the SF connections with the IRA. There are suggestions that some shadowy figures in Belfast call the shots rather than elected TDs. In addition, Sinn Fein is on record as the richest party in Ireland, raising questions about whether some of that largesse came from the rash of bank robberies that took place during the years of the Troubles.

Sinn Fein says that the war is over since the Belfast Agreement was signed in 1998. The IRA has dumped arms and the Army Council has disbanded. Mary Lou has distanced the party from the war that was - and still is - unpopular with most Southerners, and she focused instead on social policies that are crying out for attention, in particular in the areas of healthcare and housing.

Still in celebrating the election results in Waterford, the successful SF candidate yelled “Up the Ra!”- a cry heard frequently at IRA supporter gatherings during the Troubles. The ensuing headline in all the newspapers gave some credibility to the assertion that the whiff of cordite remains part of the SF culture.

There are a growing number of strong voices in FF, led by Eamonn O Cuiv, grandson of Eamon De Valera, favoring a coalition with SF and unalterably opposed to joining Fine Gael in government. It is not lost on O Cuiv and the other dissenters from the Martin leadership that the reservations expressed about SF now are very similar to the objections raised about FF in its early years.

Martin knows that the current negotiations provide his only opportunity to become Taoiseach. He is not playing with a strong hand after poor election results for his party, and he is narrowing his options by ruling out an alliance with Mary Lou. He sees his best chance in doing a deal with Varadkar, the top man in FG, who had an even-worse outing at the recent polls and who states repeatedly that he would prefer a term in the opposition benches to re-build his party. However, his statements about a coalition with FF have changed with the growing crisis brought on by the corona virus pandemic.

The refusal of the two big traditional Irish parties to even consider a coalition with SF makes little sense. Both FF and FG strongly urged Sinn Fein to reach an agreement on sharing power in Northern Ireland with the Democratic Unionist Party(DUP), the largest and least amenable unionist grouping from a nationalist perspective. Why is it a desirable political arrangement for SF to be part of a coalition arrangement with the DUP in Belfast but not with fellow nationalists in Dublin?

Where will it all end up, allowing for the fact that politics is about wielding power and the leaders of all political parties want the perks of office? In addition, if a government of some kind is not formed, then another election is inevitable, and only SF would look forward to another trip to the hustings in 2020.

More likely that Micheal Martin will work out some deal with reluctant FG involving rotating the top job and agreeing on a program for government that focuses on alleviating the crises in healthcare and housing.

 These two parties would need the Green Party to establish a majority in the Dail, and that group with twelve TDs will be in a strong position to insist on the implementation of radical policies to deal with their litmus issue, global warming.

Gerry OShea blogs at


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