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Electoral competition in Ireland since 1987: The politics of triumph and despair

Electoral competition in Ireland since 1987: The politics of triumph and despair

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Electoral competition in Ireland since 1987: The politics of triumph and despair

343 Seiten
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Apr 30, 2016


This major new account of the politics of modern Ireland offers a rigorous analysis of the forces which shaped both how the Irish state governed itself from the period since 1987 and how it lost its economic sovereignty in 2010.
Apr 30, 2016

Über den Autor

Gary Murphy is Associate Professor of Government in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University

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Electoral competition in Ireland since 1987 - Gary Murphy

Table of Contents

Half title page

Title page

Copyright page


Introduction: The conservative revolutionaries

1 Of constitutional and economic crusades: Ireland in the 1980s

Social partnership and the corrosion of intellectual thought

The Haughey effect

The Fianna Fáil–Fine Gael dichotomy

The constitutional crusade

No national government for Ireland

2 Charles J. Haughey and the politics of coalition

The Haughey election

The Haughey coalition

The 1990 presidential election

The end of Haughey

3 The politics of changing coalitions

Of beef and dishonesty

Another coalition for Fianna Fáil

A government collapses

A new coalition for Ireland

Of morality and corruption

4 Tribunals of inquiry and the politics of corrupt influence

Payments for no political response

The Flood Tribunal and Ray Burke

The Moriarty Tribunal

The travails of Bertie Ahern

Ahern bows out

The tribunal balance sheet

5 Fianna Fáil and the politics of hubris

Fianna Fáil economics

The woes of opposition

Ideological politics Irish style

Staying with Fianna Fáil

6 Fianna Fáil and the politics of nemesis

Perpetual Fianna Fáil government

Guaranteeing the banks: a peculiar form of private enterprise

The Fianna Fáil meltdown

Nemesis: the arrival of the Troika

Conclusion: The politics of Troika Ireland



Electoral competition in Ireland since 1987

Electoral competition in Ireland since 1987

The politics of triumph and despair

Gary Murphy

Manchester University Press

Copyright © Gary Murphy 2016

The right of Gary Murphy to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

Published by Manchester University Press

Altrincham Street, Manchester M1 7JA

British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data applied for

ISBN 978 0 7190 9765 2 hardback

ISBN 978 0 7190 9766 9 paperback

First published 2016

The publisher has no responsibility for the persistence or accuracy of URLs for any external or third-party internet websites referred to in this book, and does not guarantee that any content on such websites is, or will remain, accurate or appropriate.


by Toppan Best-set Premedia Limited


I have been thinking and researching about the politics of modern Ireland for many years and have accumulated significant intellectual and personal debts. I have spent my working academic life at Dublin City University where my interest in Irish politics has been supported and encouraged by many colleagues and friends over the years. I thank Eileen Connolly, John Costello, Brenda Daly, Yvonne Daly, Michael Doherty, John Doyle, Robert Elgie, Barbara Flood, Billy Kelly, Eugene Kennedy, Christine Loscher, Adam McAuley, Iain McMenamin, Brian MacCraith, Declan Raftery and Ferdinand von Prondzynski for making DCU such a stimulating place in which to work. I have had the privilege of being the Head of the School of Law and Government at DCU since 2012 and have gained enormously from the support, counsel, and encouragement of my colleagues in the School and of our students. For that I thank them all.

For conversations, insights and advice about the nature of modern Irish politics which have informed this book I thank Nicholas Allen, Alex Baturo, Fiona Buckley, Elaine Byrne, Sarah Carey, Raj Chari, Mick Clifford, John Coakley, Shane Coleman, Matt Cooper, Larry Donnelly, Seán Donnelly, David Farrell, Odran Flynn, Michael Gallagher, Yvonne Galligan, John Garry, Eoghan Harris, John Hogan, Peadar Kirby, Joe Lee, the late Peter Mair, Michael Marsh, Shane Martin, Andrew McCarthy, Conor McGrath, Seán McGraw, Tim Meagher, Ciara Meehan, Elizabeth Meehan, Brian Murphy, Mary Murphy, Donnacha Ó Beacháin, John O'Brennan, Mark O'Brien, Deiric Ó Broin, Philip O'Connor, Michelle O'Donnell Keating, Niamh Puirséil, Theresa Reidy, Rob Savage, Jane Suiter, Damian Thomas, Ben Tonra, Liam Weeks, and Noel Whelan.

I particularly want to thank my DCU colleagues, Eoin O'Malley and Kevin Rafter for stimulating conversations on modern Irish politics, research advice, assistance and friendship. Kevin in particularly made me sharpen my argument in response to his many queries and ultimately told me to finish this book, for which I am most grateful. My good friends and long-standing mentors Brian Girvin, John Horgan and Eunan O'Halpin have also helped me in more ways than they can imagine over the years and I take this opportunity to thank them once again for support, guidance and encouragement.

I started to think seriously about this book and the arguments presented in it during a sabbatical as a Fulbright scholar at the Center for European Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2011–12. I thank Frank Baumgartner, Phil Daquila, Erica Edwards and John Stephens of UNC for hosting me so generously. In Chapel Hill I benefited greatly from the friendship of Mary Beth Oliver, John Christman, Sri Kalyanaraman and Jock Lauterer and thank them for it. I also thank Cathy Frost, Breda Griffith, Dave Hannigan, Niamh Hardiman, Bill Kissane, Donal McGettigan, Mary Ann O'Neil and Tim O'Neil for their friendship, guidance and support during that sabbatical. Many thanks also to Colleen Dube and Sonya McGuinness at Fulbright Ireland for their support and help and to the Fulbright Commission for awarding me a fellowship to UNC.

I thank Tony Mason and his team at Manchester University Press, particularly Dee Devine, for their professionalism, support, and, in Tony's case, considerable patience. I am also grateful to the anonymous referees who first assessed the proposal for this book and made many helpful suggestions and to the anonymous reader of the full text. I thank DCU's Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences Research Support Scheme for supporting this work.

Away from my desk my friends Michael O'Brien, Colm O'Callaghan, Michael Moynihan, Aengus Nolan, Joe O'Hara and Colm O'Reilly continue to remain pillars of support. This book has its beginning in 1987, the year I first entered university life as an undergraduate history student in University College Cork. Although I lived and was brought up exactly five minutes' walk from UCC it was in many ways a different world. I began my academic journey then and am still on it. From that time I thank Ashley Kenny, Niamh Counihan, Fiona Crowley, Seamus Cullinan, Brian Cunningham, Neil Hackett, Judith Kelleher, Tom Lawton and Esther Moriarty for helping me begin the journey.

Finally I cannot repay my debts to them but would like to pay particular thanks to my wife Mandy and children Amy, Aoife and Jack for living with this project as much as I have, wondering would it ever be finished, putting up with the delays and absences, and for persevering with me. I dedicate this book to my late father, Jack Murphy (1939–2012), who often shook his head at the nature of the politics of modern Ireland. I hope this book goes some way to explaining it.

Gary Murphy


September 2015


The conservative revolutionaries

If we want things to stay as they are things will have to change.

Giuseppe de Lampedusa, The Leopard, 1958

In February 2011 Fine Gael and Labour, although running as separate parties, were swept to power on a wave of anti-Fianna Fáil resentment by an electorate deeply unhappy with austerity. Twenty-four years earlier in 1987 the same two parties had been unceremoniously dumped out of office by the electorate after presiding over a deep and lasting recession in which division and dissension were at the heart of the coalition government. After a quarter of a century in which the Irish state fluctuated from the brink of bankruptcy in 1987 through to the vulgar heights of the Celtic Tiger in the early to mid-2000s, to the spectacular collapse of the banks in 2008–9 one constant remained: politically the Irish electorate would look to traditional solutions when it came to the ballot box. The Irish voter, while occasionally happy to flirt with minor parties and independents, ultimately rejected newcomers, forcing them either to disband or to join with one of the larger parties.

The ultimate test of this was the 2011 general election when a Fianna Fáil party which had dominated modern Ireland would face a vengeful and angry electorate, who felt somehow conned that the party which had given them the prosperity of the Celtic Tiger went on to present them with the catastrophic results of its dramatic end. And what an end it was. Exemplified both economically and politically by the accepting of access to an €85 billion rescue package for the Irish state from the so-called Troika of the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the European Central Bank in November 2010, the decision to seek and take access to an emergency fund was the culmination of a catastrophic collapse in the economy which saw the very survival of the Irish state at risk. The political aftershock of the fall of the Celtic Tiger and the threat to the sovereignty of the state would be the collapse of the Fianna Fáil–Green government in almost farcical circumstances in January 2011. The resultant general election would be the most dramatic in Ireland since Fianna Fáil first came to power in 1932. At its heart the election was about two potential results: how bad would the damage be for Fianna Fáil, and could Fine Gael form a majority government of its own or would it have to form a coalition with the Labour Party? There were no other possible alternative governments. That in itself tells us something extraordinarily significant about Irish politics and the state of the Irish party system; at a time where practically no family in the land was unaffected by the dramatic collapse of the Irish economy the only political solution to the crisis was to go back to the two parties who had failed in the 1980s.

Three months after the arrival of the Troika, Fianna Fáil suffered its worst ever electoral performance, polling only 17 per cent of the first preference vote in the February 2011 general election and winning 20 of the 166 seats. Less than four years earlier it had won 78 seats in the May 2007 general election. Its government partner the Greens were wiped out, losing all their six seats. But the Irish public did not take its revenge by looking to new political parties. Instead it turned to Fine Gael and Labour, the traditional alternatives to Fianna Fáil since the foundation of the state.

And yet it was all so different. From the time Fianna Fáil won the 1997 general election to when it was re-elected for a third time under Bertie Ahern in 2007, Ireland was the economic success story of modern Europe. A soaring economy, nicknamed the Celtic Tiger, based primarily on a construction boom and massive borrowings, saw full employment, a rise in standards of living, and an end to emigration, long the scourge of Irish people. There were significant decreases in both personal and corporation tax rates and substantial increases in the numbers of people at work, with the creation of 600,000 jobs in that ten-year period leading to over two million people at work. Moreover the government was ‘in the black’ for the first time in thirty years in the late 1990s, with the exchequer able to meet day-to-day spending without recourse to borrowing. The political consequence of this boom was Fianna Fáil hegemony. However, once the Irish banks collapsed in September 2008, all changed utterly.

In that context the aim of this book is to assess the quarter-century of political competition in the Republic of Ireland from the time of the ending of the 1987 recession up to the 2011 general election where Ireland was ruled by the Troika and austerity was a byword both for policy-making and for how many people lived their lives. It is not intended as a comprehensive history of modern Ireland. Rather it is an attempt to ascertain in a thematic way the forces which shaped the decisions the political elites in Ireland took over the course of this crucial quarter-century in modern Irish life. The year 1987 is an important starting date as, after the election of a minority Fianna Fáil government that year, Ireland hauled itself out of the mire of the recession of the 1980s through the twin prongs of foreign direct investment and social partnership. These two precepts of macroeconomic policy-making combined with EU membership were central to the boom in economic development in modern Ireland. The Irish government was able to advertise itself to investors as an ideal location owing to its low corporation tax rates, membership of the EU, stable social partnership process and its young, educated workforce. None of these elements was enough, however, to stave off the vicious recession that hit Ireland once its banks literally went bust in 2008. Still, there have been other severe recessions in Ireland: think of the 1950s when over 600,000 people emigrated from Ireland during the course of that grim and dismal decade, or the 1980s when emigration and unemployment were a staple of family life. Yet neither of those recessions spawned either the dramatic collapse in party support we saw for Fianna Fáil in 2011 or a complete realignment of the party system. This book attempts to explain why the politics of recession have been so much different in the Ireland of the bank guarantee, bailout and Troika from what they were in previous depressed economic eras.

Disenchantment with public life has been a feature of Irish politics in the recent past where tribunals of inquiry and the collapse of the banks have opened up all sorts of questions about the nature of undue influence in Irish public life. In that context these years are also a story of political corruption, epitomised by tribunals of inquiry into payments to politicians, tribunals that for all their faults showed up a covert and complex system of payments from developers to politicians in charge of the re-zoning of public lands. Such re-zoning decisions taken by local councillors to allow planning permission for residential housing had the potential to vastly increase the value of lands owned or controlled by developers. In that context the decisions had significant consequences for Irish public life and for the private lives of those made rich by these deals and those whose lives were blighted by negative equity, ghost estates and shoddy building. There has long been a view held by practically all sections of Irish society that the main political parties, but Fianna Fáil in particular, had an especially close relationship with property developers and the construction industry. This was vitally important at local government level where local councillors were charged with making planning decisions on land re-zoning, and were continuously and vigorously lobbied by property developers. A crucial result of this was the blight of unfinished housing estates across the Irish state, estimated by the Department of the Environment at over 2,700, comprising between 40,000 and 50,000 equally unfinished houses by the time of the 2011 general election.

But this is not simply a story of economics and its consequences. The Irish people rejected a proposal to allow for divorce in the Constitution in 1986 before narrowly agreeing to it in 1995. More fundamentally a referendum to constitutionally outlaw abortion was comfortably passed in 1983 by a margin of two to one, but thirty years later, in the summer of 2013, a government constituting the same two parties as in 1983 passed legislation which allowed for abortion in very narrow circumstances based on a Supreme Court judgement in 1992. That Supreme Court judgement in theory turned the 1983 referendum decision on its head in that an amendment designed to ensure that abortion would be constitutionally prohibited was interpreted by the state's highest court as allowing for just such a development in the famous X case. The Supreme Court basically made abortion legal in Ireland if the life of the mother was at risk by the continuance of the pregnancy, including through the potential threat of suicide. However no abortions were carried out in Ireland despite the Supreme Court's ruling, and the will of the people as expressed in the 1983 referendum remained in place. Yet that abortion referendum and subsequent referendums on abortion and divorce have spawned deep social divisions in modern Ireland. The 1982–87 coalition government led by Garret FitzGerald, which was committed to secularising Irish society by dint of a so-called constitutional crusade, instead within a year of its formation put a deeply divisive referendum to the people emphasising a distinctly conservative position on abortion – notwithstanding the liberal credentials and disquiet about the wording of the abortion referendum of its own Taoiseach (the leader of the government).

The battle lines between conservatism and liberalism were drawn in the 1980s and hardened over the intervening quarter-century. Further referendums followed in 1992, to deal in the first place with the so-called substantive issue of abortion, along with guaranteeing the rights of Irish citizens to travel and to information. In 2002 yet another referendum to clarify the abortion situation was put to the people, who narrowly defeated the government's new proposal and instead decided basically to uphold the Supreme Court decision and reject government-sponsored efforts to copperfasten the original 1983 result, notwithstanding that it remained effectively in place. With the narrow rejection of the 2002 referendum, abortion as an issue seemed to be taken off the public policy agenda. However in 2013 it resurfaced as one of the most controversial of all issues in Irish life when, following the death of a young Indian woman in childbirth, both pro-life and pro-choice groups mobilised, demanding a variety of legislative changes and indeed another referendum. The government eventually legislated for the X case twenty years after the decision was handed down by the Supreme Court amidst significant disquiet from many Fine Gael members, a number of whom lost the Party whip when they voted against the legislation and eventually left the Party and set up their own. In the period since 1987 there have been over twenty referendums held to amend the 1937 Constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann, including the historic 2015 decision to allow for same-sex marriages. The seemingly never ending cycle of referendums in Ireland particularly on social and European issues has helped the political class to remove a variety of controversial issues from the policy-making arena where the political parties have to all intents and purposes outsourced leadership on these issues to the courts and the people through the mechanism of the constitutional referendum.

The politics of Ireland between 1987 and 2011 was one of triumph and despair. A boom to bust story of economic policy-making characterised by recklessness in banking and regulation was both implicitly and explicitly endorsed by the Irish people, in a variety of elections and through a lax approach to the dangers of corrupt influence, epitomised in particular by a strengthening of the clientelist system whereby the people expected their politicians to get things done for them on an individual level. This worked in creating the conditions for a booming but essentially false economy. It worked in land re-zoning. It worked in reassuring citizens on moral questions like abortion and divorce. It worked on the European level where politicians oftentimes blamed Europe when they were not able to deliver on specific issues. However, once it failed when the banks collapsed and the lax regulatory framework inevitably flopped, the electorate would take brutal revenge on the peddlers of this clientelist system: Fianna Fáil. The Irish people, however, went seeking answers from an alternative proffering similar wares. This book charts how this happened and seeks to explain why.

It is organised into six chapters and a conclusion which analyse the course of political competition in modern Ireland since 1987. Chapter 1 assesses the crises of the 1980s. Throughout the mid-1980s Ireland went through a ruinous recession which saw unemployment and emigration reach levels not seen since the 1950s. The Fine Gael–Labour government of 1982–87, unable to get a handle on either problem, eventually came to an end when Labour withdrew from office, forcing an election in February 1987. Both government parties lost heavily but the outcome was particularly disastrous for Fine Gael as it lost 20 seats, falling to 50. Although it had come within five seats of Fianna Fáil in the previous election of November 1982, the voters had enough of the party they had put into office to fix the economy. Instead the electorate went back to the old reliable voice of Fianna Fáil. Falling just two seats short of an overall majority, Fianna Fáil embarked on a political journey which aimed to restore the state's financial position by promoting a twin-pronged approach of social partnership and foreign direct investment. This chapter assesses the Ireland of 1987, examines the general election of that year and analyses the birth of the process of social partnership, widely seen as being the launchpad for two decades of macroeconomic stability which provided the conditions for economic success in Ireland. It also assesses the complex relationship between the state and its citizens regarding the moral questions of abortion and divorce that convulsed Irish society in the 1980s, leading to a number of deeply divisive referendums.

Chapter 2 examines the politics of coalition. The minority Fianna Fáil government fell in April 1989 when it lost a vote in the Dáil (the lower house of the Irish parliament) on the issue of providing additional funding to haemophiliacs suffering from the Aids virus. Although that government had lost six other Dáil votes, the Taoiseach, Charles J. Haughey, decided that his government could not be held to ransom on issues of money and finance and so requested from the President a dissolution of the Dáil, which was granted. The election of June 1989 had far-reaching consequences for the Irish party system and Irish politics in general when Fianna Fáil, having failed to convince the people to give it an overall majority, ultimately went into coalition with the Progressive Democrats (PDs) and so ended one of Fianna Fáil's core values: that of single-party government. The lure of power was too great for Charles Haughey, and he negotiated a coalition government with his arch-nemesis and former Fianna Fáil colleague Des O'Malley, who was thrown out of Fianna Fáil in 1985 for conduct unbecoming a member, and set up his own party, the PDs. The 1989–92 government continued the policies of fiscal rectitude that Fianna Fáil had begun in 1987. Stringent cutbacks in public services aligned to tax benefits for foreign direct investment, all underpinned by a process of social partnership, appeared to be having some success in restoring Ireland's economic fortunes. However Fianna Fáil would begin to implode from late 1990 when it lost a presidential election for the first time in its history, its candidate, Brian Lenihan, losing out to Mary Robinson in rather bizarre and dramatic circumstances. Its leader, Charles Haughey, faced a number of internal revolts and was eventually forced from office in January 1992 but not before he had changed the face of Irish politics by bringing coalition to Fianna Fáil.

Chapter 3 examines Fianna Fáil's difficulties with coalition. Charles Haughey's replacement as Fianna Fáil leader, Albert Reynolds, is one of the great mysteries of Irish politics. A self-made man who had previously enjoyed a successful business career, he entered politics determined to get things done and certainly lived up to his promise. He was, however, singularly unsuitable for coalition government and holds grave responsibility for the failure of Fianna Fáil's first two attempts of governing with another party. Once the Fianna Fáil–PD government collapsed amidst a wave of recriminations, Fianna Fáil continued its coalition dance after the 1992 general election by going into government with the Labour Party. The great irony here was that Labour had spent pretty much all of its time in opposition lambasting Fianna Fáil. Nevertheless once the numbers stacked up after the election, both parties decided to coalesce and the new government had, in Irish terms, a massive majority of 18 seats. Fianna Fáil had, however, gained its lowest ever share of the first preference vote, falling below 40 per cent for the first time in its history. This government proved short-lived, lasting just under two years. It fell as a result of a political miasma of events which had at their heart distrust between the Fianna Fáil leader, Albert Reynolds, and the Labour leader, Dick Spring. Chief among these events were their differing reactions to the outcome of the so-called Beef Tribunal report which examined allegations of malpractice in the beef-processing industry and whether political favours were granted to a number of companies in the industry. But while this government failed, no general election was held to find a replacement. Rather a new government was found using the arithmetic from within the then Dáil, as Labour rescued Fine Gael from potential political oblivion by agreeing to coalesce with it and the small left-wing party Democratic Left. This government also grappled with issues of morality and corruption and, while stable, it ultimately proved unpopular with the public by failing the re-election test.

Chapter 4 examines the tribunals of inquiry that co-existed uneasily with the electorally successful governments of Fianna Fáil and the PDs from 1997. Fianna Fáil and the PDs managed to unseat the then rainbow coalition governing in the 1997 general election, and were decisively re-elected in 2002 where Fianna Fáil nearly won an overall majority. Yet the tribunal of inquiries into payments to politicians and into the planning process in Dublin, both of which finished only in 2010, would haunt the political class throughout this period. But it was a strange kind of haunting which had little impact when it came to political competition and electoral success. While the evidence of the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, to the Mahon Tribunal on planning brought his, in many ways successful, career to a shuddering end, the wider consequences for political life in Ireland were relatively inconsequential. In that context this chapter examines the various tribunals of inquiry that stalked the Irish political landscape for practically two decades, and assesses the impact they had for Irish politics and society in that period.

Chapter 5 focuses on the reasons for the political success of Fianna Fáil and the PDs. Pursuing generally neoliberal economic policies which had low corporate and personal levels of taxation at their core, this coalition government oversaw an Irish economy which reported spectacular levels of economic success on a whole range of indices. Public spending by government remained high and was imitated by levels of

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