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The Ireland-European Election Conundrum

The Ireland/European Election Conundrum

Gary Murphy (Dublin City University)


Ever since Ireland first held contested elections to the European Parliament in 1979 conventional political wisdom has suggested that attitudes to the incumbent government or to the candidates on offer have shaped such elections in Ireland. Sentiment about the EU itself has had little impact on either campaigns or results. The last EU parliament election in 2014 had the potential to be substantially different given that the EU had been especially prominent in Ireland since the 2010 EU, International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank bailout. Yet the 2014 election remained resolutely a second-order election, like pretty much the seven previous EU Parliament elections in Ireland. Ultimately the 2014 European elections, for the most part, were ‘second-order’, with vote choice mainly influenced by attitudes to the Fine-Gael/Labour coalition government. Candidate personality also mattered. However, EU issues gained little traction in the campaign and opinions on the EU had minimal impact on party choice. [1]

Over the course of the past two decades, the two and a half party system that characterised the Irish party system since the beginning of the state has been well and truly sundered. New parties, most notably the Greens and Sinn Féin have emerged, while a relatively small but vocal, if divided, left wing has emerged as a political force.[2] While the electoral performance of each grouping has been patchy at general elections they’ve all had some political success at European level. The Greens had significant success in 1994 and 1999 winning seats in Dublin and Leinster, while the capital also saw current Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald make her first major electoral breakthrough in 2004 when she had a startling victory in Dublin polling over 14 per cent of the first preference vote, and taking in excess of 60,000 first preference votes to win a seat in the European parliament. She lost that seat to the veteran socialist Joe Higgins in 2009 when Dublin’s number of seats was reduced from four to three. Sinn Féin’s slow rise to electoral relevancy in Ireland reached its apogee in 2014 when its candidates, Lynn Boylan in Dublin, Matt Carthy in Midlands North West and Liadh Ni Riadh in South all won seats.

Independents, so crucial to the current government have also had dramatic success at European level.[3] Marian Harkin was a three time winner in North West in 2004, 2009 and 2014. She was preceded by Dana Rosemary Scallion 1999, while Luke Ming Flanagan topped the poll in Midlands North West in 2014. Munster had an independent representative from 1984 up to the 2009 election. This time around much interest will surround how Flanagan and the wild card from last year’s presidential election Peter Casey do in Midlands North West and how the independent Eurosceptic from the left Mick Wallace fares in South.

Domestic politics remains the key to understanding European Parliament elections in Ireland. The 2016 general election mirrored to a very large extent the 2014 European elections in that that election saw support levels for the three traditional parties Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, and Labour at their lowest level in the history of the state. For the first time ever less than 50 per cent of voters supported the three parties who had dominated the politics of the Irish state. Just three years earlier at the 2011 general election, nearly 73 per cent of voters had supported these parties. At the 2016 general election this support stood at 56.4 per cent. Thus we can see that the decade since the economic crash has seen dramatic swings in electoral volatility. There has also been a significant weakening in party attachment in Ireland over the past 35 years while party membership has also collapsed.

Into this electoral cocktail comes the spectre of Brexit. The coming European and Local elections are the first test of the political parties in the Brexit era. The three constituencies in the Republic of Ireland come with their own internal political party strife, a myriad of independents and a host of unknown unknowns. What will happen in South now that the perennial poll topper since 1994 Brian Crowley isn’t running again? The same question can be asked in North West with Marian Harkin’s retirement. Dublin has always been volatile in the European parliamentary landscape. Will good results for either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil nationally persuade them to pull the plug on this government and go to the country given that no one really knows how the Brexit endgame will play out before October’s budget? Can Labour rebound from the disaster of the 2016 general election? A similar question can be asked about Sinn Féin after last year’s presidential election.

Ireland’s membership of, and place in, the EU have never been more to the forefront of political thinking as they are now in the wake of Brexit. What Irish parliamentarians do in Brussels remains a mystery to many Irish citizens but we can expect well over half the electorate to flock to the polling booths on 24 May to express their preferences in an election where domestic considerations once again take precedence over European ones. The difference this time is that Brexit and what happens after it finally happens are at the heart of those domestic considerations.

[1] Stephen Quinlan and Martin Okolikj, This time it’s different … but not really! The 2014 European Parliament elections in Ireland, Irish Political Studies, 31:2, 2016, pp. 300-314

[2] Gary Murphy, Electoral Competition in Ireland since 1987: the politics of triumph and despair, Manchester University Press, 2016.

[3] Liam Weeks Independents in Irish Party Democracy, Manchester University Press, 2017.


Gary Murphy is Professor at the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University.

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