Political Parties in Independent Ireland

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Political Parties in Independent Ireland

The party system of independent Ireland is atypical of Europe. Instead of the configuration of liberal, Christian democratic and socialist parties that characterizes other predominantly Catholic societies, there is one set of parties that originated in the nationalist Sinn Féin (We ourselves) movement and another that grew out of sectional interests or alternative perspectives. The electoral support bases and ideological standpoints of all of these parties are unusual.

Sinn FÉin and its Successors

Although the party that became known as Sinn Féin was founded by nationalist journalist Arthur Griffith (1871–1922) and others in 1905, it was not until the British general election of 14 December 1918 that it moved to the center of the Irish political stage. By that time, what had been a marginal political force had become a broad national movement, a change marked by the accession of Eamon de Valera (1882–1975) as party leader in October 1917.

Having won 73 of Ireland's 105 parliament seats (including 69 of the 74 seats that were located in what is now the Republic of Ireland) in 1918, the success of Sinn Féin's campaign to force the British to the negotiating table left the party poised to become the dominant political force in the new Ireland. But disagreement over the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 6 December 1921 provoked a split in Sinn Féin. With de Valera's resignation as president of the revolutionary regime on 9 January 1922, he and other opponents of the treaty parted with their colleagues, arguing that the treaty, in addition to excluding Northern Ireland from the new state, failed to assert full Irish independence. The antitreaty group, which retained the name Sinn Féin, was roundly defeated in a general election on 16 June 1922, and its IRA supporters were crushed in the Civil War of 1922 to 1923.

Rejecting the legitimacy of the new state and its institutions, Sinn Féin remained in the political wilderness in the early 1920s. At the party's convention in March 1926, however, when de Valera's advocacy of a more pragmatic approach was rejected, he and his supporters withdrew from the party. On 16 May 1926 they founded a new party, Fianna Fáil (Soldiers of Destiny). In spite of its uncompromising stand for Irish unity and independence, Fianna Fáil entered the Dáil on 11 August 1927 and went on to register a series of landmark political victories. In the general election of February 1932 it became Ireland's largest party and formed a government that lasted for sixteen years. Notwithstanding a significant drop in support in the 1990s, Fianna Fáil's average support in general elections during the period 1932 to 2002 was 45.3 percent.

The victorious protreaty section of Sinn Féin reorganized itself as Cumann na nGaedheal (Party of the Irish) on 8 April 1923. Although it formed the government until 1932, it never won an overall majority, and a further decline began after its loss of power. On 8 September 1933 it merged with two smaller groups to form Fine Gael (Family or Tribe of the Gaels), which headed Ireland's first coalition government (beginning 18 February 1948) and subsequently participated in five other coalitions. Between 1932 and 2002 average support for this political stance has been 30.1 percent.

The Sinn Féin rump that remained after de Valera's withdrawal in 1926 shifted to the left following the collapse of an IRA campaign in Northern Ireland between 1956 and 1962, and limped on until the outbreak of the Northern Ireland troubles. It split again on 11 January 1970. The "official" group that retained control of the party led it further to the left, later abandoned the name Sinn Féin (becoming the Workers' Party), and eventually faded away. Most of its parliamentarians ultimately joined the Labour Party. The "provisional" group that seceded set down deep roots in Northern Ireland and is now known simply as Sinn Féin in both parts of Ireland.

Other Parties

Two distinctive sets of sectional interests have also been significant since 1922. First, a small Labour Party appeared in 1922 as an offshoot of the trade-union movement, and has been continuously represented since then; its average support between 1932 and 2002 has been 11 percent. Second, a Farmers' Party—originating from the Farmers' Union, an organization of larger farmers—existed between 1922 and 1932; average support during its lifetime was 7.7 percent. A more extensive agrarian party, Clann na Talmhan (Party of the Land), was founded on 29 June 1939 and later participated in two coalition governments. Its support tended to come from smaller farmers, especially in the western counties, but this gradually tapered off; the party's average support from 1943 to 1961 was 5.5 percent.

Few other parties disturbed the pattern of relatively stable party support. The radical left has been very weak, and only one communist-linked deputy has ever been elected (James Larkin, in September 1927). Some minor nationalist parties existed in the 1920s, but on 6 July 1946 a more vigorous radical party appeared—Clann na Poblachta (Party of the Republic), which took support from Fianna Fáil and allowed the formation of the first coalition government on 18 February 1948. Clann na Poblachta proved to be ephemeral; it disappeared in the 1960s; its average support between 1948 and 1961 was 6.5 percent. Since then, the most significant new arrival has been the Progressive Democrats, founded on 21 December 1985, whose origins lay in divisions within Fianna Fáil over the leadership of Charles Haughey but which also attracted support from other parties. The party's share of the vote has slipped since its first electoral outing in 1987, but it averaged 6.1 percent over the four elections between 1987 and 2002. It has participated in coalition governments with Fianna Fáil from 1989 to 1992 and since 1997.

Parties and Voters

The three main parties had long been considered atypical of Europe because they reflected underlying social divisions only weakly. Fianna Fáil has traditionally been a catchall party, with more pronounced support in the small-farming areas of the western counties in its early years. Fine Gael has had a slightly more middle-class support base and has traditionally been strongly represented among large farmers. The Labour Party's areas of greatest strength are in the south and east of the country, with farm laborers as one of its more distinctive traditional components and some urban working-class support in more recent years.

Parallel to the weak link between the parties and social structure, there is a near-absence of ideological distinctiveness. In its early days Fianna Fáil was more socially radical, and Fine Gael more conservative, but since the late twentieth century the two parties have contested the middle ground. The Labour Party originally represented itself as a relatively cautious wing of the trade-union movement, but it swung sharply to the left in the late 1960s, then returned decisively to the center in the 1980s.

By the end of the twentieth century the similarity of Irish political parties mirrored developments in other European countries. The bitter differences that led to the formation of the party system in the 1920s were substantially purged when in 1948 Fine Gael appeared to appropriate Fianna Fáil's cause and broke the remaining tenuous link with the United Kingdom by ending Ireland's membership of the Commonwealth. Since then, although the imprint of Fianna Fáil's more nationalist history is still plain, competition between parties has been based on pragmatic rather than ideological arguments.

SEE ALSO Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921; Civil War; Clarke, Kathleen; Cosgrave, W. T.; de Valera, Eamon; Irish Republican Army (IRA); Lemass, Seán; Mother and Child Crisis; Politics: Impact of the Northern Ireland Crisis on Southern Politics; Politics: Independent Ireland since 1922; Proportional Representation; Trade Unions; Women's Parliamentary Representation since 1922; Primary Documents: Provisional Government Proclamation at the Beginning of the Civil War (29 June 1922); Republican Cease-Fire Order (28 April 1923); "Aims of Fianna Fáil in Office" (17 March 1932); From the 1937 Constitution; Letter to John A. Costello, the Taoiseach (5 April 1951)


Busteed, M. A. Voting Behaviour in the Republic of Ireland: A Geographical Perspective. 1990.

Coakley, John, and Michael Gallagher, eds. Politics in the Republic of Ireland. 3d edition, 1999.

Gallagher, Michael. Political Parties in the Republic of Ireland. 1985.

Mair, Peter. The Changing Irish Party System. 1987.

Marsh, Michael, and Paul Mitchell. How Ireland voted 1997. 1999.

Sinnott, Richard. Irish Voters Decide: Voting Behaviour in Elections and Referendums since 1918. 1995.

John Coakley

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