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24 May 2007

A brief guide to the Irish elections

Here are some of the key facts about the Irish elections including key players, parties and issues

By Tom Marchbanks

Ireland is voting to decide who will govern it for the next five years. The results of which, will be keenly scrutinized by 700,000 Irish residents in the UK.

Irish politics is complicated. Thanks to their system of proportional representation every government formed since the 1980s has been a coalition of parties.

This time around there are no less than six main parties with a chance of power.

There are 166 Teachta Dálas or TDs (MPs) from 42 constituencies who sit in the Dáil Éireann – all the seats are up for election. Under the Irish system of government power largely resides in the elected Dáil but there is also an appointed Seanad Éireann (senate) and a president – a largely ceremonial position without role in the executive.

Some history

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The Dáil was first formed by Sinn Féin, which on the back of the Easter Rising, did handsomely in the 1918 General Election. Sinn Féin then declared an independent republic, forming the Dail Government in Dublin.

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The defiance led to the Anglo-Irish war, which ended in a treaty giving Southern Ireland independence but partitioning off Northern Ireland. Civil war followed, between pro and anti-treaty forces. On ending in 1923 the Constitution of the Irish Free State was in place to set up the framework for modern Irish politics.

The state of Ireland

Going into the election, Ireland’s economy is buoyant. Nevertheless amongst the 3.1 million electorate, there seems a taste for change; perhaps weary of the 10 year Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrats coalition.

In April, when the election campaign starting gun was fired, key battlegrounds where set out on:

Health, such as waiting lists, hospital beds and A&E
Crime, its perception, anti-social behaviour and gangland attacks
Public Services
Maintaining Ireland’s booming economy

Recently, public services particularly in health, have become the key issue as the campaign has focused on quality of life. In a parallel development Bertie Ahern has come under renewed criticism over his dubious financial dealings and his recent address to Westminster.

The main six parties

Fianna Fáil is seen as a populist party, traditionally left of centre. Founded in 1926, it has its roots in the Eamon de Valera’s anti-treaty forces of the civil war.

The party is currently led by the Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and in the last Parliament were Ireland’s largest party with 81 TDs. For the last ten years they have been in a government coalition with the Progressive Democrats. As the count comes in the polls predict they will win but lose seats. A possible outcome to this is the contentious issue of needing to form a new coalition with Sinn Fein.

Fine Gael, are the Conservative opposition. Founded in 1933, they are strongly linked to the pro-treaty forces of Michael Collins. The party currently has 31 TDs and is headed by Enda Kenny. They have had strong connections with the Labour Party since 1954 issuing joint policies on health economy and crime going into this election. Polls suggest they will make the most gains but fall short of winning. They may still however, be able to form a governing coalition with Labour.

The Labour Party, are Ireland’s oldest party founded in 1912. They are headed by Pat Rabbitte and have 20 TDs. In the seven governments they have been part of they have only once formed a coalition with Fianna Fáil. As well as standing on the same three policy platforms as Fine Gael they are concentrating on “the doorstep issues, which change the lives of ordinary people”. Senior figures have said they are expecting to gain five seats in this election, but if the polls are right they look set to stay on the same number.

The Progressive Democrats, (PD) sit on the liberal (right) side of the spectrum. Formed in 1985 they are currently headed by Michael McDowell. They hold 8 seats in the Dáil and are campaigning on a platform of low taxes, healthcare, pensions, crime, helping families and stamp duty. Despite their slogan, Don’t Throw It All Away they are on course to drop seats this election and lose their share of government.

Sinn Fein, first emerged in the 1900s. Seen as on the left wing of the political spectrum, after the last election they had 5 TDs. They are campaigning particularly on public transport issues and seem to have struck a chord with those who have missed out on the benefits of the economic boom. Polls suggest they are eating into traditional Labour votes and may have considerable success, possibly even being kingmakers in the next government.

The Green Party was set up 25 years ago, and are organised on a non-hierarchical basis. With their 6 TDs they have gone into the election campaigning on transport, housing, health, climate change, education and planning. During the campaign they have had a much publicised “rumble in ranleaigh” – a public spat with the PDs over comments made on their leaflets. The polls suggest they will do well, increasing in TDs.

There are also 14 independents, the number of which is predicted to decline.