On Elections

How people elect parliaments

Three Irish Just So Stories


Ireland is blessed with a version of the most representative of voting systems, the single transferable vote. At the last election in 2011, for example, over 77% of people who voted ended up represented in the Irish parliament, the Dáil Éireann. The system also gives all voters close to equal voting power in deciding who gets elected and who does not.

In advance of the 2016 elections – due in a few weeks’ time – it might be useful to explain how Ireland got its parliament, its voting system, and its slightly unusual political parties.



How Ireland Got Its Parliament

Ireland got its independence, with a fully independent parliament, in 1922. But to explain how this came about, let’s first go back a bit.

The Irish, and their elected representatives in the House of Commons in London, had been agitating for some form of independence since the middle of the 19th century.

After a round of British voting reforms in 1885, many Irish poor men got the vote, resulting in the election of many new MPs from outside the pro-union wealthier class. These new politicians of the Irish Parliamentary Party went to Westminster seeking ‘home rule’ (a status within Britain which might have resembled what Scotland and Wales have now had for a couple of decades.)

Happily for them, the 1885 election gave the Irish MPs the balance of power, and the leader of the Liberal Party, Prime Minister William Gladstone, was broadly willing to help them get their home rule in return for the Irish supporting the Liberals to stay in government.

Unhappily, the rest of the Liberal MPs were divided on the issue. The first Home Rule Bill of 1886 was defeated in the House of Commons. An early election in 1886 saw the Liberal party deeply divided on the Irish question, and led to a major election loss to the Conservative Party.

When Mr Gladstone next got back into power in 1892, he tried again. The second Home Rule Bill passed the House of Commons (after a fist fight on the floor of the House between Irish and Conservative members during the debate). But the Bill was blocked by the Conservative-dominated House of Lords.

In 1912, with yet another Liberal government in power, the Irish tried a third time. Reforms in 1911 meant that the House of Lords could now only delay bills by one year, not block them forever. The Home Rule Bill, and a similar one for Wales, became law. But then the First World War broke out, and the Parliament started passing laws to suspend and delay home rule from getting started.

By the time the war ended, the Irish situation had become worse, with independence fighters mounting a civil revolt in Easter 1916. It was violently suppressed, but everyone knew that something needed to be done to change the way Ireland was governed.

The British again reformed their electoral laws after the war; in the election at the end of 1918 all males over age 21, and for the first time many women (aged over 30) could vote. The joint wartime Conservative-Liberal government had a huge win.

In Ireland, 73 of the 105 seats were won by a new Irish political party – called Sinn Féin – committed to a more hardline stance than the old Irish MPs. Over half of them had been elected while in jail as revolutionaries, although after the election they were released.

Now, seeing that they had no balance of power influence in London, and that their old Liberal allies had split and partly merged with the Conservatives, the 73 Sinn Féin MPs didn’t bother coming to London. They simply met in Dublin and declared themselves to be a new Irish assembly – the Dáil Éireann. So began the Irish parliament.

The Dáil declared Ireland to be an independent republic. The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland declared that the Dáil didn’t exist.

Meanwhile, in London, the government at last conceded a form of home rule was inevitable. But what they actually decided to do was create two home rules. In 1920 they legislated to create home rule separately in two regions: six of the counties in Ulster making up ‘Northern Ireland’, and the rest of Ireland becoming ‘Southern Ireland’. Each region was to have a separate ‘House of Commons’.

No-one regarded this as their preferred solution. Irish representatives from the south weren’t in London at all, and were having none of it. Representatives from the north were divided; some remained British Unionists, and several MPs from the north opposed the new law.

Anyway, elections were held in May 1921 to the new assemblies. Well, sort of. In the south, of 128 seats for the new parliament, none were actually contested at all. Sinn Féin ran enough candidates to fill all seats except 4, and no-one stood against them. Five of their candidates took the added precaution of nominating in two seats, just to be sure. The 4 remaining university seats were also uncontested, although not by Sinn Féin.

All in all, just 123 candidates stood for the 128 seats. Obviously everyone who ran was given a seat, but it’s a bit much to call this an ‘election’.

On the day for the opening of the House of Commons for Southern Ireland, only the 4 university members turned up. All the Sinn Féin members met elsewhere, and declared themselves to be the Second Dáil Éireann. This was becoming a habit.

The intended Southern Irish government never really got going, but the Second Dáil now sent envoys to London to negotiate with the British Government. Months of tense argument followed, and in December 1921 the result was the Anglo-Irish Treaty. They were going to have a third go, with Ireland to be a ‘free state’ – an entity with a status much like that enjoyed by Canada and Australia.

Except that Northern Ireland, through it’s parliament (which had been elected a bit more successfully) would have the right to opt out of being in the free state (which it eventually did).

So – more elections. A new southern Irish assembly was to be elected, and it’s primary task would be to ratify and implement the Treaty. Everyone understood that the election would be in effect a national referendum on whether or not to approve the Treaty.

Not so fast. At least this time, the idea of contests between multiple candidates caught on – in about three-quarters of the districts anyway. Sinn Féin was popular enough that it still won almost all the seats – especially the ones where no-one else stood.

But by now the Sinn Féin party had actually divided bitterly on whether to approve the Treaty or not. Many politicians thought that the Treaty didn’t establish enough true independence for Ireland, and argued that the battle should continue until complete independence and a republic were achieved.

To manage their party split, the party’s leaders ensured that all their candidates would stand as a united ticket, whether they were pro- or anti-Treaty, and they would sort it out later. This meant that in the contested seats, voters couldn’t exercise a choice between candidates For the Treaty and those Against it.

And in the uncontested electorates, all the seats went to a mix of some candidates For the Treaty that no-one had voted for, and other candidates Against the Treaty that no-one had voted for.

All these people came together in September 1922, and now declared themselves to be the Third Dáil (although the British said they were just a provisional assembly to approve the Treaty).

Well, we wouldn’t be here now if the Dáil – or whatever it was – hadn’t approved the Treaty. After much argument and bitterness it did, and in December 1922 the Irish Free State constitution came into effect, creating an Ireland almost entirely independent of the British. The northern assembly immediately exercised it’s option to opt out, leaving only ‘the south’ to become the new Free State, and also creating what we now call Northern Ireland.

There was civil war in southern Ireland over this for many months. But eventually the supporters of the Free State constitution prevailed.

In 1923, there were more elections in the south; the first more or less orderly ones. The Irish called their new assembly the Fourth Dáil. The British said it was really the First Dáil, but no-one listened to them about that.

And that’s how the Irish got their State. And their Dáil.

If you’d like to know, in 1937 the Irish revised their constitution, dumped the remaining British links, changed their name to Éire and declared themselves to be a republic.

So in hindsight, the Dáil Éireann has the very unusual history of existing as an assembly under 5 different constitutional regimes.



How the Irish got their electoral system

Now you know the story above, about how the Irish got their Dáil. It is elected by a very unusual – and very representative – voting system. This is the story of how it got to be so.

In the 1850s in London a man named Thomas Hare invented a new voting system. It was based on the idea that all the elected MPs needed the same number of votes to get elected. Hare’s system made the power of all the voters equal, as well as giving minorities in the community some members in parliament, instead of only giving seats to the party with the most local votes. For several decades many people in Britain – and also in Australia – campaigned for Mr Hare’s system to be used to elect parliaments because it was much fairer. Nothing happened.

The reason nothing happened is that in Britain – and indeed to his day, almost everywhere in the world – the details of the voting system to elect parliaments is entirely in the hands of the current members of parliaments. This is because election rules are created by parliament’s laws.

And strangely enough, once parliamentarians have been elected by a system which advantages them – such as Britain’s plurality system – they become very fond of that system, and don’t want to change it.

When a party is in opposition, it sometimes grumbles about how unfair the voting system is, and suggests that more representative methods like Hare’s should be tried. But if they win the next election, the idea of a voting system which would give the minority a fairer go seems to evaporate. And since the voting systems are chosen by those in the majority, changing it is very rare.

Anyway, in the early 19th century, Hare’s alternative fairer method was well known in Britain. Australia’s new national government had come close to adopting the system for elections to it’s Senate in 1902. One of the new system’s most famous advocates, John Lubbock, Lord Avebury, had published his best-selling book on the subject in 1904. In far-off Tasmania they had actually adopted the system.

But the problem remained that governments in power, elected under less representative systems, rarely see a reason to change the law to give people other than themselves a better share of the representation in parliament.

In 1918, as voting reforms were being considered, one idea was put about that maybe the cities in Britain should use the Hare system, but not the rural areas, where representation should stay in the hands of majorities in local areas.

So… in the areas which favoured Liberal or the new Labour parties, everything should be shared fairly, while the Conservatives got to keep everything outside the cities. It was one of the greatest try-ons in electoral history, and the Liberals and Labour weren’t falling for that.

But then everyone turned their attention to the Irish problem. As was obvious to all, the Irish community had a small, but permanent, minority that were not catholic, and favoured continued union with Britain. In the northern part of Ireland these views were even the majority in Belfast and a few counties.

If these places used the plurality voting system which was becoming the norm in Britain, the Sinn Féin party would win almost every seat. The unionists and conservatives would have no representation at all across most of Ireland. They were certain of this because … it had just happened, in the 1918 elections:

image - Irish_UK_election_1918.png

(Map from Wikipedia)

Suddenly the dominant Conservative politicians in London remembered the attractions of Mr Hare’s fair representation system. If Ireland was to have it’s own parliament, what a good idea that it should have a fair system that would see the minorities get representation.

And so in 1920 the British Parliament legislated for Mr Hare’s system to be used in the two new ‘Houses of Commons’ in Northern and Southern Ireland: “… at any contested election of the full number of members the election shall be according to the principle of proportional representation, each elector having one transferable vote.”

If you remember the story above, the elections that followed happened in May 1921. Ireland became only the second place in the world – after Tasmania – to use the system. The elections were a disaster, with only 123 candidates for 128 seats in the south, and little better in the north. Hardly an auspicious way to start the new voting system. Things improved in later years.

Having been brought in, this new system quickly came to look normal. The elections of 1922 used it again (maybe it was too hard to legislate quickly for anything different), and so did the elections in 1923 that really got the Irish electoral system underway.

And that’s how Ireland got its voting system.

And they have used it ever since. The deal that came out of the 1921 Treaty wrote the 1920 Act’s method into the nation’s constitution, and it’s never been removed.

So Irish elections have always used the single transferable vote system, with electoral divisions electing at least three, and as many nine, seats. Nowadays they are all between 3 and 5 seats, which is really a small number and loses a bit of representation that could be achieved with larger numbers of seats in each division; but it’s a lot better than one-seat divisions.

Irish governments have tried to get rid of it, by the way. The very successful Fianna Fáil party tried twice, in 1959 and 1968, to convince Irish voters to substitute the system for the British single-member seat system. That would have been great for the dominant party, but lousy for the voters. Both times the voters said no. Governing parties haven’t tried again since.



How Ireland got its political parties

Most democratic nations have a party of the right, defending property interests and conservative ideologies, and a party of the left, seeking social equality and economic redistribution, and maybe some other small parties. Ireland is not quite like that.

As you saw above, in 1905 the Irish leaders most set on independence founded the Sinn Féin party. Its name means “we ourselves”.

Sinn Féin saw the country through the tension, political wrangling and civil disorder of the revolutionary period, and by 1921 – when independence was close – Sinn Féin was winning almost every seat in the elections that were taking place.

But in 1922 the party split grievously over the issue of whether to ratify the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The majority said yes, and the independent nation got started. But the wound was deep.

The group in the majority, which established the first Irish government, set up a new political party under the name Cumann na nGaedheal (“Society of the Gaels”). They ran Ireland for roughly its first decade.

The anti-Treaty faction at first refused to attend the Dáil, arguing that it was not the true parliament they wanted. After a few elections they started attending. By 1932 they became the Fianna Fáil (“Warriors of Fál”) party, and won government. The Cumann na nGaedheal group merged with other minor parties to form the Fine Gael (“Tribe of the Irish’) party.

So that’s how Ireland got its political parties, and that’s pretty much where things have stood for 80 years.

The Dáil is a vibrant and highly representative assembly. Almost unique in the democratic world, its main political parties are defined by nationalist identity issues, rather than economic interests or social ideals. There has always been a small Labour Party, but unlike in Britain it never became a major party.

Fianna Fáil was the largest party in the Dáil from 1932 to 2011, and was only out of government for five short periods. It is generally considered a centrist party with a broad popular appeal. Yet in 2011 it’s support crashed to its worst result since it was founded, suffering the general penalty of sitting governments with the economy in a post-2008-recession distressed state, and after a string of ethical scandals.

Fine Gael is generally seen as a moderately centre-right party, and yet it only forms government in Ireland in coalition with the Irish Labour Party. These two both reached their best result ever in 2011 and established a strong coalition government.

In the 1970s a modern version of Sinn Féin came back on the scene. Still associated with a hard line on Irish unity (reunion, that is, of the north and the south), and active in both nations, it is now otherwise a party of left-wing political positions.

Minor progressive parties also traditionally win seats in the Dáil, and so do numerous independent members.

As the 2016 election approaches, the Fine Gael-Labour coalition looks like losing some support (especially its junior partner Labour), but is unlikely to lose government. Fianna Fáil seems not to be recovering its former popular support. The modern incarnation of Sinn Féin does seem to be gaining support, and may yet have a prominent role to play after decades sin the wilderness.


25 January 2016





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