Surprises from the Irish European Elections

Building a Conservative Europe - July 5, 2024

It took a full week but the by Friday morning all the Irish seats for the European parliament had been filled. The people had spoken, now came the tricky bit of trying to understand what they said. Who were the winners and losers. Fine Gael lost almost nine percentage points on its share of the vote in 2019 but still came home with four seats. At the beginning of the campaign they were given no chance by many of holding two seats in the midlands north west but they did and handily enough. So despite a 30% drop in votes FG were happy to claim a good election as it was not as bad as predicted. Fianna Fail saw their vote by a touch under 4 percentage points but went from one to four seats, taking 2 in the south, a result that not even the most gifted prognosticators had foreseen. Fianna Fail it is safe to say were delighted with their performance if not the vote. Labour held steady and took a seat in Dublin against the odds, they declared themselves very pleased as it could have been much worse. The Social democrats advanced their vote from a touch over one per cent to a touch under three percent so while not a break through progress definitely made.

Sinn Fein’s vote declined by half a percentage point on the 2019 elections and this was the big story of 2024. How ever stoically the party took the result in public this was a disastrous result and poses some fundamental questions for the party going forward. 6 months ago SF were polling in the mid thirties nationally. There was a belief that they had a very decent chance of taking two seats in each of the three constituencies and were on track to be the largest party in the next Dail and in fact be in government. Their ever upward rise had taken on a certain sense of inevitability about it. Their polling was solid and consistent and replicated across all the various polling organisations. The last few months had seen a precipitous decline in the numbers but even then on the eve of voting they were still polling in the low twenties, which would comfortably see them home with a seat in all three and a chance of picking up one or two more. When the ballots were tallied they came home with 11.14% of first preference votes and failed to take a seat in Midlands North West, which all things being equal should be their strongest region traditionally.

What happened? Well naturally there is a selection of opinion and a deal of shock but some sharp observers of Irish politics and the data were unsurprised. We know from polling that Sinn Fein voters are amongst the strongest blocs in favour of lower levels of immigration but the party was seen as being on the pro-immigration, open borders side of the argument. The reality was that Sinn Fein had been for years carrying of the neat trick of riding two horses at once, like the circus performers of old and as long as the horses were happy to travel in the same direction it could work. Students of exit polling data had known for sometime that Sinn Fein was the party with the largest values gap between the voters and the leadership and its was the issue of immigration that brought that gap to light. In essence the contradictions inherent in the system became manifest brought about a crisis for the party. The question now for Sinn Fein is how to glue together the former coalition of voters. That may prove to be an impossible task, at least in the time available before the next general election.

The Green Party were the other big losers both in terms of seats and votes. The lost both of their seats in the parliament and saw the vote go from 11.37% of first preferences to 5.36%, a drop of more than half their vote. The oddity is that there is perception that the Greens have been the most effective party in government at pursuing their aims and driving wider policy. It may have been precisely that success and the fact the costs of moving towards Net Zero are being felt in practice during a cost of living crisis have lead to their decline. Some commentators feel that while there maybe support for the purely environmental side of policy the more extreme progressive positions they advocate in the culture wars are hurting them with Middle Ireland.

The last group to consider are the Independents are here there is no clear agreement, good election, bad election. At least that is the spin. This was touted as being the Independents Election, both at a European level and for local elections but when you look at the numbers on paper before and after don’t look so radically different we hear. There is a genuine sense of relief from two main government parties who did fear that things could have been worse, much worse. We should note however that while the total of the votes given to simple independents is down 1.77% percentage points Aontu and Independent Ireland, new counter narrative parties, combined took 10% of the vote and a seat in and almost took a seat in Dublin. Independents for change Mick Wallace and Clare Daly lose their seats while Michael McNamara takes a seat. The numbers may look the same but the personnel are very different. Another number to note is Other Parties, up to 5.58% of the vote. While it is a very diverse group most of those new Others came from parties on the immigration skeptic right along with a fair scattering of similar independents. And there in lies a problem for the right in Ireland. There is no conservative party to be the natural benefactor for the current disaffection. Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are progressive centrist parties whatever they might identify as now or whatever they may have in fact been in the past. They do undoubtedly attract conservative voters but that is tradition, loyalty, family heritage and lack of alternative offering. Absent a genuine  coherent centre right party the right leaning vote with be endlessly fissiparous. It will be undisciplined in message and risk being negatively radicalised which will ultimately damage conservatism in the country.

Voting and Politics in the Irish System

To understand the election results, their context and possible consequences unfortunately it is necessary to have some knowledge of the process and the voting system used in the Republic of Ireland. To stand as a candidate for the European Parliament you do not need to be part of a political party or any special recognised grouping just a European citizen. In local elections even that citizenship requirement is waived just get off the plane and on the register of electors in time.

To be nominated to run for the European parliament you have 3 possible lines of approach. You can be nominated by a registered political party on production of a certificate of party affiliation. You can go around your friends and neighbours and get 60 sixty signatures or statutory declarations of assenters, who must be on the register of electors on the constituency and the signature must be formally witnessed. Or simply fork over E1,800 of a deposit. What this means in effect that the barriers to entry are very low and practically anyone can run in the European parliament elections or any other elections held in Ireland. Additionally there are no party lists nor are there minimum levels of support that you need to achieve in order to take your seat. All this is from an Irish perspective a good thing, a democratic way of doing things.

However once you get nominated then you have to run and that costs money. There is a spending limit of 230,000 euro for each candidate in a European election. This is a concern that independent or new party candidates would dream of having and none of these candidates in the recent election will have had a fraction of that money to spend on their campaigns, unlike the established parties. Once upon a time it was possible to fundraise from wealthy donors and business but in the interests of transparency and the avoidance of potential corruption Ireland moved to a state funded model. Today any party that receives more than 2% of the vote in a general election qualifies for funding on a pro rata basis. For the rest the rules are tough. A candidate cannot receive more than 1,000 euro from any one person in a calendar year. They must open a specific bank account to hold donations. Cash donations cannot exceed 200 euro and anonymous donations above 100 are banned and if such a donation is received it must be given over to the Standards in public office commission (SIPO). Very importantly these regulations do not only consider monetary offering but also gifts of property, use of property, goods and services.

The up shot of the process and the regulation is that it is very easy to get your name on the ballot paper but very difficult to actually run the kind of campaign that could have a chance of taking a seat. In essence they let everyone into the sweet shop but most of them can only look not buy. In 2009 there were 10 candidates on the ballot in Ireland South, in 2024 there were 23. In 2009 in the old North West there were 13 on the ballot, in 2024 there were 27 candidates. Many but not all of these were on the right or anti-progressive. Of course it would be a nonsense over simplification to just add all the right of centre votes together and say Look, a seat was lost or even two. However it is true that in the Irish voting system of the single transferable vote where the voter votes her preference from first to last, in theory cast 26 votes that the most myriad the offering the less disciplined the transfers to like minded candidates and that means ultimately wasted votes. Not just wasted votes. Wasted time, effort, resources, personnel and money that if brought together coordinated and spread across the constituency could have made a real impact instead of being eked out over 10 parishes. If this continues to be the pattern of the Irish right where everyone gets to have a party that represents them perfectly, where compromise  and coalition is seen as anathema then we will see the same parties on the same carrousel of power as we have for a generation.