Gerard Howlin: General elections no longer the moment of definitive decision

Ireland has arrived at a full-blown system of internal party plebiscites à la the Kremlin, writes Gerard Howlin
Gerard Howlin: General elections no longer the moment of definitive decision

Ireland has arrived at a full-blown system of internal party plebiscites à la the Kremlin, writes Gerard Howlin

Russian soldiers march at the Red Square in Moscow, (VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian soldiers march at the Red Square in Moscow, (VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Kremlinology was once a great science. It deciphered barely apparent signals coming from inside the closed — but powerful — upper echelons of the USSR communist party. The tiniest signs about seating arrangements or the use of the definitive article before one’s title could signal your rise or ruin. A subculture of subversive humour leavened the tedium for the general population who otherwise had no input.

I mention the Kremlin in its Soviet heyday because Ireland has arrived at a full-blown system of internal party plebiscites as the definitive act of government formation and policy choice. Since February 8, 2020, general elections are primaries only and no longer the moment of definitive decision.

Elements of this new reality have precedent. But the scale and consequence of what is in-progress are transformative. This is a diminution of citizenship. The enormous enhancement of relatively small numbers of party members has decisively displaced elected parliamentarians within Fianna Fáil and diminished them within Fine Gael. In the Greens and other small parties, the membership has always had an important role. But that importance is magnified because of the pivotal position of their party now and because from now on, this is apparently a 'new normal' across the board.

There is nothing specifically new or unique about party members ratifying a proposed programme for government. It is business as usual in the Greens, and would be so in Labour and the Social Democrats. Similarly for Sinn Féin. And, like Sinn Féin, the Greens are an all-island organisation so members north of the border will cast potentially decisive votes, on government formation in the South.

What has changed in circumstances where Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are much smaller, where their TDs are no longer the fulcrum of power and smaller parties are central to government formation is that power has shifted fundamentally. This is because rules have changed within parties. It is because old structures have splintered, and our new order is of many more component parts. In this mix, the decisive levers of influence are once-derided and patronised grassroots. Formerly expected to be cheerleaders, they are now deciders. For some, as in Fianna Fáil, that power is new.

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan in Merrion Square, Dublin Photo:Gareth Chaney/Collins
Green Party leader Eamon Ryan in Merrion Square, Dublin Photo:Gareth Chaney/Collins

For others, including the Greens, its consequence is unprecedented.

This decisive shift in the centre of political gravity is, of course, constitutional. Parties are properly entitled to organise their affairs as they seem fit. We voted for them eyes wide open, knowing in advance that this is how it would work. But seeing it in practice is watching live the office of citizen, replaced by the cadre.

Corporatism is not new in Irish politics. The Seanad is expressly organised, in theory, on that basis.


Social partnership was the ultimate highpoint — or low point — of subcontracting government to vested interests. It undermined not only the legislature but before it went to seed it began to supplant the executive. The Citizens’ Assembly is similarly based on the unfounded assumption that someone other than who we elect can represent us. There is a fine line between delegation and usurpation.

In one way, this heyday of the party member is overdue. Political activism is a civic virtue. Contrary to that laziest of put-downs, they are not all the same. They enable us to have choice and ensure in so far as they can that we are presented with that choice on our doorstep.

The advent of television, of special advisers, of much more money funding ever-larger campaigns all diminished the role of the membership. But the wheel has turned and since 2011, when the Green party was wiped out, it has turned faster and faster.

In that election, 76 TDs, or 45% of the Dáil, took their seats for the first time. In 2016, 52 TDs, or 33%, arrived for the first time. In February 2020, 48 TDs or 30% were newly elected. Those numbers do not capture the full churn because several more having previously lost their seats, were elected again. This change in personnel is the consequence of a splintering of the edifice. When the Greens entered government in 2007 with six seats and 4.7% of the vote, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael combined commanded 68.9% of the electorate. Today that share is 46.7%.

Leinster House on Kildare Street Dublin.  Photo:Gareth Chaney/Collins
Leinster House on Kildare Street Dublin. Photo:Gareth Chaney/Collins

In 2007 the Greens were an add-on. Now they are essential if the FF-FG-Green iteration of coalition is to be formed. That is power.

We are seeing an acceleration of the sectioning of democracy. Ever more discreet, ring-fenced, unaccountable circles of influence exercise ever more power. In our democracy, that power is now decisive. I have no particular phobia or fear about the members of political parties. But I do not know their names, they are not available for me to question and I have no way of challenging them once their TDs are elected. Those I do know of course, and we are changing them with astonishing regularity. It is that quickening of the political life cycle that doubles down on the influence of the membership within. That influence has now crystallised, as the general election is rerun as a connected series of plebiscites among cadres.

The good thing about political activism is its motivation. For little return, except the satisfaction of seeking the policies they believe in, people make a contribution to politics that allows for choice. It also allows for channels of influence that are far less wholesome. Matters of essential national importance are sorted and settled by a very small group of unelected members. As old elites seemingly crumble, new ones as quickly rise. It may seem at first glance like 'what it says on the tin' — an equitable share of the cake. But what is being cooked up, is an entirely different recipe.

Momentum in Britain, and the election of Jeremy Corbyn, demonstrates how quickly, how feral the unpoliced insides of a political party can become. There was a tinge of that in Charlie Haughey’s Fianna Fáil. There have been significant issues around bullying in Sinn Féin. As the locus of power going forward, party membership has emerged as a new elite; not the necessary but ultimately hapless helpers of yesteryear.

General elections are contested across complex terrain, of party, personality, policy, geography, gender and more. Our multi-seat proportional representation system allows us citizens to make calibrated choices.

As our constitutional referenda, especially those dealing with complex EU treaties show, the plebiscite is the bluntest of all democratic instruments. A straight-up yes or no vote on a programme for government means that those negotiating it, and then championing it, must have an eye in the rearview mirror, because very few can be left behind, if it is to be ratified.

The process ends the process of policy by giving a veto to a new elite. It is certainly different, but it is far from certain that it is better. It is a process that is now effectively normalised. I predict it will have enormous impact, over successive elections, on our politics and policies.


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