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Home Uncategorized The Old Order and the New

The Old Order and the New

Eoin O’Malley
How Parties Win: Shaping the Irish Political Arena, by Sean D McGraw, University of Michigan Press, 303 pp, €30, ISBN 978-0472036127 Though you might not think it, the Irish party system isn’t studied enough. This is a problem for political science more than it is for Ireland. Having pioneered the use of mass movements in politics and the first tightly-controlled parliamentary party, Ireland then provided an unusual case of a dominant party system in a democracy. We had catch-all parties before it was a concept in political science, and we dispensed with class politics well before it was dismissed in much of Europe. In many ways Ireland’s politics offers a bellwether for trends in the rest of the world. The breakdown of the Irish party system was quite spectacular in 2011 – though we might say that we just swapped one conservative right-wing party for another. On many metrics this was a big election. It was the most volatile election in modern European history. The party order was overturned as Fianna Fáil became the third largest party, overtaken by Fine Gael and Labour. And this was in a country that had seen Fianna Fáil come first and Fine Gael second in every election since 1932 (see Figure 1). So it is ironic that after an election that saw Europe’s most successful electoral machine all but destroyed we have a new book which focuses on how Irish parties win. This book, by Notre Dame political science professor Seán McGraw, seeks to explain the stability of the three main parties in Irish politics, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour. Though the explanation is meant to cover the time since the 1930s, most of the data it is based on comes from the 1980s onwards. Probably more interesting than why the three parties continued to be the top three is that the order of party support was almost constant from 1932 to 2007, and especially that Fianna Fáil maintained its dominance. In many ways this is a complementary study to Richard Dunphy’s The Making of Fianna Fáil Power in Ireland. Figure 1: Party support from 1932 to 2007. The main argument of this well-written, comprehensive and serious study is that the three-party dominance and remarkable stability is not due to traditional demand-side explanations. Party systems in Europe used to reflect cleavage divisions, that is, deep and institutionalised divisions within society that were reflected in…



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