Election Resources on the Internet:
Parliamentary Elections in Ireland - Elections to Dáil Éireann (House of Representatives)
by Manuel Álvarez-Rivera

Ireland held a general election on February 26, 2016. An overview of the proportional representation system used to choose members of the lower chamber of the Parliament of Ireland - Dáil Éireann (the House of Representatives) - is presented here.

RTÉ - Ireland's national television and radio broadcaster - will have live 2016 results here. Nationwide and constituency-level results are available here for the following Dáil elections:

      February 25, 2011      
      May 24, 2007      
      May 17, 2002      
      June 6, 1997      

1997 to 2011 election statistics presented in this space come from Dáil General Election May 2002 Results and Transfer of Votes, Dáil General Election May 2007 Results and Transfer of Votes and Dáil General Election 2011 Results, as well as reports and data files issued by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. Note that except for minor corrections in the number of registered electors in seven constituencies, the updated 2011 general election figures are otherwise identical to those originally obtained from RTÉ.ie.

May 22-25 European election results are available here. Ireland's Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government has detailed 2014 European election results for Ireland here.

The Electoral System

The Parliament of Ireland, the Oireachtas consists of a lower chamber, Dáil Éireann (the House of Representatives), whose members are directly elected by universal adult suffrage, and an upper chamber, Seanad Éireann (the Senate), whose members are appointed by the prime minister, or indirectly elected by panels representing vocational interests or by graduates of the National University of Ireland and the University of Dublin (Trinity College). Dáil Éireann has greater legislative power than Seanad Éireann, which can neither initiate financial legislation nor delay indefinitely legislation already passed by Dáil Éireann.

Dáil Éireann is composed of 158 members (previously 166) elected for a five-year term of office. Dáil elections are carried out in three- to five-member constituencies by the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system, which combines proportional representation (PR) with preferential voting. Under this system, voters indicate a first preference for one candidate, and may rank the remaining candidates in successive order of preferences on the ballot paper.

In each constituency, Dáil seats are awarded to candidates who attain the constituency quota, calculated by dividing the number of valid first preference votes cast in the constituency by one more than the number of seats to be filled, and then adding one to the result. A candidate whose first preference vote total equals or exceeds the quota is immediately elected; if the candidate obtained more first preference votes than the quota, the surplus is distributed among the remaining candidates, in proportion to the second preferences of all votes cast for the successful candidate. The surplus transfer may result in the election of one or more candidates, in whose case the described procedure is repeated. However, if there are unallocated seats after transferring surplus votes from elected candidates, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated, and the preferences of the eliminated candidate are transferred to the remaining candidates. These two processes are repeated until all seats are filled.

In referendums held in 1959 and 1968, the Irish electorate rejected proposed constitutional amendments to replace STV with plurality or first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting in single-member constituencies, the first time by a narrow margin and subsequently by a large majority.

The Political Parties

Ireland's present-day party system traces its origins to the civil war of 1922-23 between supporters and opponents of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. The treaty brought an end to the armed uprising against British rule in the island - which had been an integral part of the United Kingdom since 1800 - and granted dominion status to twenty-six of Ireland's thirty-two counties, which in 1922 became the Irish Free State.

Northern Ireland, comprised by six of the nine counties forming the historic province of Ulster, was allowed to opt out of the treaty, and the province, ruled by a majority Protestant population that wished to remain part of the U.K., promptly exercised that option, retaining its own devolved government as provided by the Government of Ireland Act 1920; a similar arrangement established by the act over the rest of Ireland - "Southern Ireland" - was never fully implemented because of the armed conflict, and ultimately it was superseded by the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

Interestingly, the partition of Ireland was barely touched upon during the debates leading to approval of the treaty, which provided for the establishment of a Boundary Commission that would review the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State "in accordance with the wishes of the inhabitants." As previously noted, Northern Ireland was (and remains) predominantly Protestant, but Catholics constituted the majority of the population in about half the province's territory, and it was expected the Commission would reduce Northern Ireland to an unworkable polity. However, the existing boundary was confirmed in 1925, after it appeared the Commission was about to propose a border change favorable to Northern Ireland.

Some leaders of Sinn Féin (We Ourselves) - which had won a landslide victory in the 1918 Westminster election, practically obliterating the moderate Nationalist or Home Rule Party - accepted the treaty as a step forward in the fulfillment of Ireland's national aspirations (all the more so as Great Britain had threatened immediate war if they rejected the agreement), but to others it meant renouncing the independent Irish republic they had fought for: the Irish Free State retained the British monarch as head of state, and members of the country's Parliament had to swear allegiance to the crown - a requirement many found particularly offensive. Moreover, like other dominions of the British Empire at the time - Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa - the Irish Free State was not completely sovereign (but otherwise fully self-governing). In due course, Sinn Féin split into pro-treaty and anti-treaty factions, with supporters of the treaty securing its ratification by a fairly narrow margin. However, the anti-treaty faction refused to recognize the Irish Free State, and the country was plunged into a short but bloody civil conflict, in which Free State forces prevailed over republican "Irregulars."

In the years following the civil war, the pro-treaty faction of Sinn Féin - reorganized as Cumann na nGaedheal (Society of Gaels) - dominated Irish politics under the leadership of W.T. Cosgrave; anti-treaty Sinn Féin parliamentarians refused to take their Dáil seats. However, in 1926 a group of Sinn Féin leaders headed by Eamon de Valera, a survivor of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, left the party to establish Fianna Fáil - The Republican Party. In two Dáil elections held the following year, Fianna Fáil (Soldiers of Destiny, or Warriors of Ireland) eclipsed Sinn Féin and established itself as a major challenger to Cumann na nGaedheal; unlike Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil deputies took the detested oath of allegiance (which de Valera dismissed as an "empty political formula") and entered Dáil Éireann.

In the 1932 general election, Fianna Fáil scored a decisive victory over Cosgrave, and de Valera became head of government. Although Ireland had become a sovereign nation under the Statute of Westminster passed by the United Kingdom Parliament in 1931, the government of de Valera gradually severed nearly all of the remaining constitutional ties with Great Britain, and in 1937 introduced a new constitution, subsequently approved by voters in a referendum, which made Ireland a republic in all but name.

In 1933, Cumann na nGaedheal merged with two minor groups to form Fine Gael (Gaelic Nation). From that point until 2011, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael (also known as the United Ireland Party) were the country's two major parties, but Fianna Fáil remained by far Ireland's dominant party, winning the largest number of Dáil Éireann seats in every election between 1932 and 2007 (although usually short of an absolute majority) and holding power for all but eighteen years between 1932 and 2011. However, the STV system of proportional representation has allowed several other parties to be represented in Dáil Éireann, most notably among them the moderately left-wing Irish Labour Party (Páirtí Lucht Oibre). Although it has never been as successful as its British counterpart or the social democratic parties in most other Western European countries, it has won seats in every Dáil election since 1922, taking part in a number of coalition governments, usually in alliance with Fine Gael.

Under the leadership of de Valera, Fianna Fáil ruled Ireland from 1932 to 1948, when opposition parties won an overall majority in Dáil Éireann and formed an inter-party government headed by John A. Costello of Fine Gael, which formally proclaimed Ireland a republic and took the country out of the British Commonwealth in 1949. Although Fianna Fáil and de Valera regained power in 1951, Costello formed a second inter-party government in 1954, which lasted until 1957, when de Valera was returned to office. In 1959 de Valera was elected President of Ireland, and Sean Lemass succeeded him as party leader and taoiseach (prime minister). In turn, Jack Lynch succeeded the ailing Lemass in 1966, and Fianna Fáil continued in power until 1973, when a National Coalition of Fine Gael and Labour secured a majority in Dáil Éireann. Led by Fine Gael's Liam Cosgrave (the son of W.T. Cosgrave), the National Coalition government held office until 1977, when Fianna Fáil won a landslide victory and Jack Lynch became taoiseach once more. However, two years later Lynch resigned as leader of Fianna Fáil and head of government; Charles Haughey succeeded him in both capacities. Following two inconclusive Dáil elections in June 1981 and February 1982, Haughey briefly alternated in office with Fine Gael leader Garret FitzGerald, but Fine Gael polled strongly in a subsequent general election held in November 1982, and FitzGerald formed another coalition government with the Labour Party, which held office until 1987, when Fianna Fáil, led by Haughey, returned to power.

Three new parties gained parliamentary representation between 1981 and 1989. Most notably among them were the Progressive Democrats, a conservative party founded in 1985 by former Fianna Fáil minister Desmond O'Malley, who sought to "break the moulds" of Irish politics. The Progressive Democrats scored a major success in the 1987 general election, but were unable to sustain their momentum and match their initial result in subsequent elections, although they continued to be represented in Dáil Éireann until the party was dissolved in 2008-2009.

In 1969 Sinn Féin split into "Official" and "Provisional" wings; the former eventually renounced violence and became the Marxist-oriented Workers' Party (originally Sinn Féin the Workers' Party), entering Dáil Éireann in the 1981 general election; the "Provisional" wing also began to take part in Dáil elections after 1986, albeit with little success in the beginning. Meanwhile, the environmentalist Green Party (Comhaontás Glas) won its first Dáil seat in the 1989 general election.

Charles Haughey, who had formed Fianna Fáil's first-ever coalition government with the Progressive Democrats in 1989, was forced to resign in 1992 following a series of scandals and damaging revelations. Albert Reynolds succeeded Haughey as party leader and continued the coalition with Progressive Democrats, which fell apart after Reynolds accused Desmond O'Malley of being "reckless, irresponsible and dishonest." In the ensuing early general election, held in November 1992, both major parties lost considerable ground to Labour, which scored its best result up to that point.

Reynolds subsequently formed a coalition government of Fianna Fáil and Labour, which collapsed in late 1994 over the appointment of the attorney general as president of the High Court. Fine Gael leader John Bruton then formed a "rainbow coalition" government with Labour and Democratic Left (a 1992 left-socialist breakaway of the Workers' Party, which was decimated by the split) that remained in office until the 1997 general election, in which Fine Gael improved upon its 1992 showing, but Labour was unable to hold on to its previous gains and lost considerable ground. Fianna Fáil leader Bertie Ahern then formed a coalition government with the Progressive Democrats and independent deputies.

Bertie Ahern continued in office after the 2002 Dáil election, in which both Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats scored seat gains, securing an overall majority. Fine Gael fared badly in the election, while Labour (which had merged with Democratic Left in 1999) failed to improve upon the combined showing of the two parties five years earlier. Meanwhile, the Greens won six Dáil seats (a gain of four) and Sinn Féin, which had elected a single deputy in the 1997 general election, increased its representation to five seats.

In the 2007 general election, Fianna Fáil suffered only minor losses and remained Ireland's largest party, but the ruling coalition lost its parliamentary majority, due to the poor performance of the Progressive Democrats, which lost all but two of its eight Dáil seats, including that of party leader and Tánaiste - deputy prime minister - Michael McDowell; as previously noted, the party disbanded the following year. Although Fine Gael scored major gains, its "rainbow alliance" partners, Labour and the Green Party failed to improve upon their 2002 election showing: the Labour Party lost one seat, while the Greens won six seats - the same number as in the previous election. Meanwhile, Sinn Féin lost one of its five seats, and the Socialist Party lost its single deputy. A total of five independents were elected as deputies, down from thirteen in 2002.

Three weeks after the election, Bertie Ahern secured a historic third term in office after Fianna Fáil reached a coalition agreement with both the Greens and the Progressive Democrats. However, in April 2008 Ahern announced he would step down as Taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fáil the following May, in the wake of "incessant publicity" around a judicial inquiry investigating his personal finances. Nonetheless, he denied any wrongdoing. Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil chose deputy prime minister Brian Cowen as its new party leader; he also succeeded Bertie Ahern as head of government.

After years of strong growth, Ireland's economy went into recession in September 2008, in the wake of the global financial crisis. The unemployment rate rose to double-digit figures at the beginning of the following year, and by 2010 the Irish banks began to run out of money and could no longer borrow on the international money markets. As a result, Cowen's government had to accept an eighty-five billion euro (112 billion dollars) economic rescue package from the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

However, as part of the package the government had to impose an austerity program that would entail four years of tax increases and spending cuts. Fianna Fáil and the Greens accepted the deal, but the latter made it clear that they would leave the coalition once the budget was passed and the bailout was in place. In turn, Cowen agreed to call an early election in 2011, once Parliament passed the finance bill, which was needed to ensure the country met the target set out by the bailout package. Nevertheless, Cowen intended to remain leader of Fianna Fáil as well as Taoiseach, and while he survived a self-imposed party leadership confidence vote on January 18, an attempted Cabinet reshuffle, followed by the resignation of six ministers in just over twenty-four hours, precipitated the Green Party's pullout from the coalition government on January 23, even though the day before Cowen had reversed course and stepped down as leader of Fianna Fáil.

The 2011 general election, originally scheduled for March 11 but brought forward to February 25, was an unmitigated disaster for both Fianna Fáil and the Green Party: the former, led by former minister for foreign affairs Micheál Martin, not only polled its worst result ever but finished in third place, while the latter lost all its Dáil seats. The big winners were Fine Gael, which under the leadership of Enda Kenny won both the largest number of first preference votes and Dáil seats for the first time ever; Labour, which became the second-largest party, scoring its best result ever in terms of seats won; and Sinn Féin, which also had its best result since it began contesting Dáil elections in 1987. In addition, the Socialist Party and the leftist People Before Profit Alliance secured Dáil representation, along with a sizable contingent of independent candidates. No single party won an overall parliamentary majority, and six days after the election Fine Gael reached an agreement with the Labour Party to form a coalition government.

Online Resources

Copyright © 2007-2016 Manuel Álvarez-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.
Last update: February 27, 2016.