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Four Lessons from Ireland's Election

We watched Ireland’s election results roll in over the weekend, marking the country’s biggest political upheaval since its civil war. Voters who watched their country’s boom turn to bankruptcy in just a few years punished the party in power – Ireland’s dominant party for 85 years – by turning it into a third party overnight. Some third parties that traditionally scraped by with single-digit percentages suddenly became major players, while others found themselves wiped off the political map.

In last month’s cover story of The American Conservative magazine, I wrote about Ireland’s boom and bust, and what it means for the USA. A few months earlier I described the tense week of Ireland’s bankruptcy and international bailout, and a few months before that I wrote in Big Questions Online why the Irish might be better able to handle austerity than Americans. This election begins the next chapter, one that offers many lessons for politically active folk back home. For example:


It sounds like a campaign slogan, and usually it is used that way, by people who do not have a clear idea how their system works or what alternatives exist. In American schools, for example, we were taught that democracy consisted of voting, and that the person with the most votes wins. Most of my countrymen still do not realise that most democracies have better methods than that.

In most European countries, voters can pick between several choices – the national debates here were between the leaders of six parties. Voters here can rank two choices for a given office, their favourite and next-favourite. In addition, districts don’t just elect one person to represent you, but three, four, five or more depending on population. In our case, all the representatives together form the Dail (pronounced like Doyle), and the dominant party elects the Taoiseach (TEE-shak, or Prime Minister) -- the president of Ireland is a largely ceremonial office.

This generally means that multiple parties can exist, as no one fears that their minor party will “spoil” the votes of a lesser-evil major-party candidate – and Ireland has traditionally had two major parties and several minor ones. Several local people from different parties represent us, and if one doesn’t respond we can go to another.

While the US system remains advanced for the 1780s, it allows parties to ignore most voters in most states. This does not even include the ridiculous Electoral College, which actually elects the president, and whose members -- as I pointed out in this article eleven years ago -- are not legally required to follow the will of the people in their area. Put it this way: most Irish vote, most Americans don’t – they know it doesn’t matter.

This American system works against the presence of all but two parties, since any vote for a third party would be a vote against the major party you despise the least. It means that each major party must desperately triangulate between its core financial supporters, cultivating an image of ideological warfare while agreeing on most major issues. It is a comparatively undemocratic system in which most people’s votes don’t count – but it is also an anti-capitalist system, one in which each representative of an area holds a complete monopoly on those constituents.

The USA doesn’t have to adopt a full parliamentary system to make their system fairer – Americans could bring back preference voting, which most states had in the 19th century – more than one party can endorse the same candidate, so candidates must solicit the support of several independent groups. We could have ranked voting, in which people list their preferences. If your state has a House and Senate, one body could be filled with locally-elected representatives, while another could use state-wide Proportional Representation, and voters could get the best of both systems.

I know Tea Partiers, Libertarians, traditional Republicans, paleo-cons, crunchy cons, distributists, anarchists, evangelicals, Greens, liberals, socialists and all manner of single-issue zealots, and I tell them all the same thing. If you want change, lobby to change the voting system – you deserve better than to have one choice more than North Koreans.

This country has other electoral attitudes that my countrymen might want to consider adopting. The election season here is a few weeks long – the law prohibits candidates from putting posters up more than a short time before the election, and the posters are to be taken down shortly afterwards. Television advertisements are illegal. Candidates do appear on news programmes and interviews, and while they are not above the usual vague platitudes and soaring rhetoric, they tend to stick to economic issues – how to get more people employed, or what public employees will have to be fired.

News media tend to focus on what candidates vote for, not the sordid details of their personal lives – unless it affects their public life, as when the Prime Minister appeared apparently drunk in an interview. The closest thing to a scandal came a few years ago, when a young female candidate in our area saw photos of drunken party stunts circulate on Facebook. The “scandal” was limited to a brief and amused mention by journalists and, for the candidate, a large number of marriage proposals.


Since Ireland won its own revolutionary war from Britain, it has had two major parties – Fianna Fail (rhymes with tall) and Fine Gael (rhymes with tail), leftovers of the two sides of Ireland’s civil war. Fianna Fail was in power for 61 of the last 79 years, and almost continuously for the last 25, riding the Celtic Tiger boom years.

When the global economy began to slide in late 2008, Ireland had a real-estate bubble three times the relative size of the USA’s, and the country’s six banks were badly overstretched. Fianna Fail leaders took the bold step of guaranteeing all bank deposits in the nation – not up to a certain amount, not all low-risk loans, not just personal savings. Everything.

The next two years saw the country’s economy go south anyway, and by late 2010, after weeks of denials, Fianna Fail leaders were forced to ask for the European Union and International Monetary Fund to bail out their country. Perhaps 100,000 people protested in Dublin – as I mentioned in American Conservative, a proportionally-sized US protest would comprise the entire state of Virginia. The Prime Minister was so unpopular that he was forced to step down as leader of his party before the election.

Pre-election polls indicated not just the expected boost for Fine Gael but a surge in support for two of the minor parties, which had traditionally only received single-digit percentages of the vote -- picture a US election in which Ralph Nader suddenly polls better than the Democrat. Labour was running neck-and-neck with Fine Gael for a while, to the point that they took the bold step of promoting their own party leader as Prime Minister.

Sinn Fein’s surge was even more remarkable – as the political party affiliated with the Irish Republican Army, it brings considerable baggage to elections. To their credit, the Irish media did not let leader Gerry Adams off easily, either – radio hosts grilled him about IRA crimes years ago, and asked whether a man allegedly involved in the murder of police officers would, as part of a ruling coalition, control the police. At the same time, his party was allowed a fair hearing in the national debates, and probably justly; except for the occasional incident, both sides have kept the peace and their word in Northern Ireland for twelve years now, and everyone wants to put the “Troubles” behind them.

In the end, Fianna Fail came in third, with just 12 per cent of the vote – a quarter of their usual share. Fine Gael took about 45 per cent and will lead the new government. Labour took 22 per cent and is expected to be the coalition partner, although how their labour-union vote will mesh with Fine Gael’s centre-right platform remains to be seen – some Irish say, only half-jokingly, that they don’t expect the marriage to last long. Sinn Fein tripled their usual numbers with nine per cent, independents and other parties another 12 per cent. Importantly, though, all these groups received a major bounce in support even though they hold very different platforms – voters angry at Fianna Fail and demanding change threw their votes in all directions to get it.

Americans are seeing some of the same trends. In the last few years they have seen massive anti-war protests, the election of a black president with an unlikely name, the Tea Party protests and the labour conflict in Wisconsin. Each of them have complicated origins and varied circumstances, but all of them represent more of what in Third World countries we call “unrest.” As the fossil fuels grow scarcer and our decades-old economic boom continues to fade, the coming years are likely to bring many more historic firsts for good or ill, as increasingly frustrated voters see only diminishing returns from old choices.


I have done a bit of volunteer work for the Green Party here, whose members comprise many farmers and small businessmen, and who have been spared some of the wackier characters that plagued its American counterpart. Like Green Parties in more than 100 countries, though, they had to decide whether to retain the comfortable purity of the outsider or to “sell out” and inch forward incremental changes. They remained independent outsiders for a quarter-century, slowly building their base until they won several seats in the Dail.

In 2007 came the first election since issues like peak oil and climate change, long derided as fringe issues, percolated into the mainstream, and the Greens hoped for a breakthrough. At first, though, the election changed little. Fianna Fail held control with 45 percent, while the Greens held only four percent of the TDs. One thing that did change, however, was that Fianna Fail’s old coalition partner lost most of their seats, and Fianna Fail needed a new ally to have a majority. Armchair politicos put minor parties together like jigsaw pieces to create new alliances, but FF reached out to the Greens.

The coalition was controversial from the beginning, with some elected officials leaving the party in protest. Three Greens were appointed ministers or junior ministers -- like US Cabinet secretaries – and they pushed through a few reforms.

While in power they came to our churches and neighbourhood groups and spoke bluntly about peak oil, localisation, community agriculture in a way that most national leaders do not. On the other hand, they had to back down on a number of government policies long protested by the party’s activist core, like the U.S. government’s “rendition” flights through Shannon airport and Shell Oil’s gas pipeline over the west coast.

Shortly after they took power, though, the economy crashed, and over the next few years the Greens objected more and more often to Fianna Fail’s handling of the crisis. So did most of the public, and the Greens shared in the perceived blame for the government’s policies. Finally, after the bailout, the Greens announced they were breaking the coalition, forcing a new election, but the defiant move proved too little too late. They lost every single one of their seats in the election, and may disband.

In 2007, I was cautiously optimistic about the Greens in power, and supported their decision to work with other parties. If they had refused a coalition then, however, their party would have been much healthier now. Decisions are often obvious in the rear-view mirror.


The Irish government made more than one binding agreement – first to cover the banks’ massive losses, then to pay back the emergency bailout money – and no one is clear to what extent those arrangements can be undone. If a new government remains locked into those agreements, its options will be much more limited.

Again, Ireland’s specifics are unique, but the USA and most other governments have commitments that go beyond international agreements. For example, most Americans live among post-war building construction of suburbs, strip malls, asphalt and warehouse stores, and they aren’t going to go away anytime soon. With the money and time we have left we can’t simply make all our cars electric, replace our roads with Personal Rapid Transit systems or redraw our cities. Personally, most of us live near family and friends, have mortgages, perhaps bound by neighbourhood association agreements. On many levels, we are all limited.

This doesn’t mean we have no control, simply that we need to understand what our options are. Most of us can’t build a new eco-house tomorrow, but most of us can insulate our homes, turn the lawns into vegetables, turn the chain-link fences into hedgerows and turn the shed into a chicken coop, if we can get the neighbourhood association to back down. We and our neighbours won’t be able to tear down the abandoned Wal-Mart safely, but we can fill it with livestock, cover it with blackberry brambles and build raised vegetable beds in the parking lot.

We can prepare to change our position – say, to save up to buy a small farm. But such a move requires time to save up money, skills that are not easy to acquire in one’s spare time, and years of commitment during which you won’t get any younger. Radical changes will become more difficult as time goes on.

In the coming years, Ireland will probably have to return to its traditional limits, probably by returning to some of the local farms, businesses and community they never completely abandoned during the boom years. The new government can help determine how painful life will be in the meantime, though, and if voters deem them useless, this won’t be the last political shake-up here, or where you live.

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