Election 2016 could be the real ‘earthquake’ Irish election

In advance of a QPol symposium on General Election 2016 in Queen’s University on 11th February, Dr Muiris MacCarthaigh, a Lecturer in Politics and Public Administration at Queen’s, reflects on the changing political landscape in Ireland

Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s recent announcement confirmed that a general election for the 32nd Dáil will take place in a matter of weeks. The last general election in February 2011 was at the time referred to as an ‘earthquake’ in Irish politics. It was precipitated by Ireland’s entry into a three-year loan programme from the ‘Troika’ of the IMF – EU – ECB, and the unseemly collapse of the Fianna Fáil – Green Party government, and it delivered some significant firsts in Irish politics, including:

  • The lowest ever vote share in a general election for Fianna Fáil (17%), making it the 3rd largest party for the first time with a final seat number of 20, down from 78 in 2007
  • The highest ever vote shares for Fine Gael (36% and 76 seats), the Labour Party (19% and 37 seats) and Sinn Féin (10% and 14 seats)
  • The largest ever government majority with Fine Gael and the Labour Party forming a coalition that controlled 68% of seats in the chamber.

It has been an extraordinary five years since then, with notable developments including: the state successfully exiting its ‘bailout’ programme in 2013 and returning to positive growth; the passing of the marriage equality referendum and, perhaps most controversially, the creation of Irish Water and the introduction of water charges.

If 2011 was remarkable for the scale of the change in fortunes of the main political parties, Election 2016 is likely to be even more significant for the Irish party system which has fragmented and diversified in the intervening years.  Indeed successive polls have suggested that more than 40% of voters will not vote for the traditional three parties in Irish politics.

As well as polls that reveal a significant growth in support for Sinn Féin since 2011, a plethora of small parties, alliances and independents have now emerged across the political spectrum. Indeed, going into this election, seats are held in Dáil Éireann by groups that did not even exist at the last election. These include the Anti-Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit (4), Renua Ireland (3) and the Social Democrats (3). There are also 19 independents in the outgoing Dáil and an expectation that at least this number will be returned.

They will all be competing for a smaller pool of seats with a constituency commission’s recommendation of a reduction in the number of constituencies (40 rather than 43) having been agreed, leading to a total of 158 rather than 166 seats. Following legislation in 2012, all registered parties competing in the election must now ensure that 30% of their candidates are female, though the gender quotas have proved problematic to the point of being challenged in the courts.

As the deadline for fixing the election date nears, Fine Gael remains the largest party in the polls and Enda Kenny is widely tipped to continue in his role. Some suggest that he may even lead a single-party government if lessons can be learned from the recent British case.  If the current Fine Gael-Labour Party administration performs badly at the polls, or cannot make up the numbers with sufficient ‘gene-pool’ independents that would ensure a stable majority, then a wide variety of coalition options may come about.

Agreeing a common programme for government is likely to take a lot longer than the week it took in 2011, and the potential that a diverse coalition of interests may not serve a five-year term is a distinct possibility.

Whichever administration is returned to power, they will face some immediate policy challenges including: the centenary commemorations; Brexit; the 2017 Budget and public sector reform.

It’s all to play for, but Election 2016 is shaping up to significantly realign the contours of Irish party politics.

QPol is Queen’s University’s Policy Engagement blog and the symposium on GE 2016 on 11th February will hear presentations from Prof. Gary Murphy (Dublin City University), Dr Liam Weeks (University College Cork) and Dr Claire McGing (Maynooth University). To register, please click here.


  • the rich get richer

    Hopefully the Electorate will vote against the permanent Government of fg/ff/lab .

    If you keep on doing the same thing you get the same results

  • Acrobat_747

    Clearly this is what the people want.

  • chrisjones2

    Its an interesting point but commentators say this before every election in many states and not much changes. On the Poll numbers I see only modest change

    You only tend to get a heave like you suggest when people are outraged and demand change – does anyone seriously think that is the current state of play in most of Ireland?