The findings about the behaviour if Irish voters reported in this chapter reveal intriguing paradoxes for Irish democracy. One of the main reasons we think of Ireland as a democracy, after all, is because Irish citizens are given the chance to choose their governments when they vote at Dáil election. That choice is rationalised and simplified by political parties, who put competing policy programmes before the public during election campaigns, and offer rival potential governments. After the election results have been declared, furthermore, it is the leaders of political parties who bargain over the formation of a government. One of these party leaders will become Taoiseach, and occupy the central role in the Irish political system
Notwithstanding all of this, we have seen that many Irish voters, when they cast their ballots at election time, are expressing preferences between rival candidates rather than between rival parties – about 40 per cent of voters, indeed, say that they would support the same candidate even if this person were to belong to a rival party. Despite all of the ballyhoo of an election campaign, furthermore, with the publication of rival party manifestos and the intense discussion of the issues of the day, it seems to be the case in Ireland, as elsewhere, that it is voters’ social and demographic backgrounds, rather than their detailed policy preferences, that have the biggest impact on party choice. Indeed one of the best predictors of how people will vote today does appear to be how their parents voted in the past. Citizens in any democracy, of course, are free to choose how to vote using whatever criteria they see fit. It is striking, however, notwithstanding some of the grander principles of democratic theory, that many Irish citizens do not seem to be making up their minds at the time of a general election on the basis of a carefully balanced choice between the rival policy positions put before them.
While we will need to wait and see how things will develop over time, there are quite a few straws in the winds of the Irish National Election Study to suggest that Irish party politics might be on the brink of major change. Irish society has been transformed radically in recent decades – becoming younger, more urban, less religious – and as we have just seen there do seem to be major differences in voting behaviour between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ Ireland. The two traditional major Irish parties – Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – remain almost as popular as ever among the voters of the ‘old’ Ireland. But, among voters of the ‘new’ Ireland, they have lost a lot of ground to parties like the Greens, Sinn Féin and Labour. Fianna Fáil’s resilience even among this group of voters is also rather striking, however, and on the evidence from 2002 it is Fine Gael that has most cause to be seriously worried.
The only reason we have not already seen much more change in Irish party politics is that these citizens of the ‘new Ireland’ are also much less likely to turn out and vote at all. It is just possible that these voters will turn to Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael for comfort in their old age. But it is quite possible that, as these demographic and social changes work their way inexorably through the electorate, the face of Irish party politics will indeed change in a very striking way.
References and further reading
Carty, R.K., 1981. Party and Parish Pump: Electoral Politics in Ireland. Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press.
Gallagher, Michael and Michael Laver (eds), 1993. How Ireland Voted 1992. Dublin: Folens; Limetrick; PSAI Press.
Gallagher, Michael, Michael Marsh and Paul Mitchell (eds). 2003. How Ireland Voted 2002.Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Gallagher, Michael and Richard Sinnott (eds), 1990. How Ireland Voted 1989. Galway: Centre for the Study of Irish elections and PSAI Press.
Hinich, Melvin and Michael Munger, 1997. Analytical Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Laver, Michael, Peter Mair and Richard Sinnott, 1987. How Ireland Voted: The Irish General Election 1987. Dublin: Poolbeg Press
Lyons, Pat and Richard Sinnott. 2003. Voter turnout in 2003 and beyond. pp143-158 in Gallagher, Marsh and Mitchel (eds, 1993)
Marsh, Michael and Paul Mitchell, 1999. How Ireland Voted 1997. Boulder, Co.: Wetsview Press.
Schuessler, Alexander A., 2002. A Logic of Expressive Choice. Princeton: Princeton University Press
Sinnott, Richard, 1995. Irish Voters Decide: Voting Behaviour in Elections and Rerferedums Since 1918. Manchester: Manchester University Press
Whyte, John H., 1974. ‘Ireland: politics without social bases’. pp. 619-51 in Richard Rose (ed.) Electoral Behaviour: A Comparative Handbook. New York: Free Press.
Table 7.1: Party and candidate in deciding a preference vote, 2002
Party or candidate most important in deciding 1st preference vote?
Would give 1st preference to same candidate if running for different party?
Depends on party
Note: All figures are percentages. The valid number of cases was 2,072
Source: Author’s calculations from INES
Table 7.2: Attitudes towards Fianna Fáil and other parties, by number of parents supporting Fianna Fáil, 2002
Note: All attitude scales run from 0 to 10; the low scoring option is the first mentioned in the column heading Standard errors in italics under estimated scale positions for each party. (Statistically, the standard errors measure the uncertainty associated with the estimated policy positions, with the ‘actual’ position expected to be within a range of two standard errors either side of the mean.)
Source: Author’s calculations from INES
[simplify table by (1) citing positions to one decimal place and (2) dropping standard errors?]
Figure 7.3: Attitudes to the political system affecting voting turnout
1. This and all subsequent findings reported from the INES are the result of the author’s own calculations using the INES dataset.
2. This analysis is confined to those who would have been old enough to vote on all three occasions.
3. The two INES scales were added and the resulting scale inverted, so that high values reflected a high perceived impact of the vote. Scale values 1-3 were coded ‘low’, 4-10 ‘medium’ and 11-13 ‘high’.
4. People were asked to agree or disagree with the following statements. ‘In today’s world, an Irish government can’t really influence what happens in this country.’ ‘It doesn’t really matter which political party is on power, in the end things go on much the same’. ‘The ordinary person has no influence on politics’.
5. Responses to the three questions were added and the resulting scale inverted so that high scores reflected high perceived influence on the worlds. Scores 1-7 were coded as ‘low’ perceived influence on the world, 8-12 as ‘medium’ and 13-19 as ‘high’.
6. The two INES scales were added after the first had been inverted so that high values reflected a high perceived understanding of politics. Scale values 1-5 were coded ‘low’, 6-8 ‘medium’ and 9-13 ‘high’.
7. A binary logistic regression is a standard statistical technique that is used when what is being explained, the dependent variable, can take one of only two values – such as turning out to vote, or not, or voting for some particular party, or not. All of the findings reported in the next paragraph are the independent effects of the variables discussed, holding constant the effects of all other variables.
8. This was achieved by using binary logistic regressions to predict ‘FF voter’, ‘FG voter’ and ‘Labour, Green or SF voter’, coded as binary variables, on the basis of the social background variables as coded in tables 2 – 6, plus gender, year of birth, educational attainment, and household income.
9. The binary logistic regressions reported in table 7.7 were augmented by the addition of seven of the eight new variables (excluding general left-right self-placement) reported in table 7. 9. Adding the seven issue dimensions reduced the role of church attendance to insignificance in predicting Fianna Fáil voting, but raised GAA membership to significance, while the effects of all other social background characteristics were the same. Apart from the other effects mentioned here, the effects of all social background characteristics were the same when the seven issue dimensions were added to the model predicting Fine Gael voting, and this was the case too in the model predicting Labour/Green/SF voting.