“All politics is local” and in a country as small as Ireland, the old saying rings even truer. Because everyone knows everyone, the political system can seem quite small and insular, but watching the politics as an outsider is fascinating. This is the first post in a series about the Irish political system. Most of the positions and institutions in the political system are referred to by their Irish-language titles. I have tried to put the English phoenetic pronunciations in quotations.
Ireland runs on a parliamentary system of governance, rather than a representative democracy (like the US). I didn’t understand the working differences between the two systems until I moved here. In essence, the main differences are that the Taoiseach “TEE-shuck”, or Prime Minister, is elected by the Dáil “Doil” (House of Representatives), and that members of the Dáil vote as a party on legislation, not as individuals. In fact, voting against your party can get you thrown out of the party altogether!
Ireland also has a president who is elected by popular vote. The role is largely ceremonial, but the current president, Michael D Higgins has definitely made a name for himself for taking stands on a number of issues.
Because constituents are essentially voting for a party, and not on the attributes of any particular candidate, there are more choices of viable parties to choose from. The other side to having this many parties is that rarely does one party have a majority, and thus must form a coalition government with one of the smaller parties. Another huge difference between Irish and American politics is the lack of a far-right conservative (socially or economically) party. I have listed the current parties from political right to political left.
Fine Gael “Finna-Gale”: Fine Gael is a center-right party. It is pro-business, economically conservative, but socially moderate. It is currently in a coalition government with Labour, which is center-left. As the leader of the coalition government, the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, comes from this party.
Fianna Fáil “Fee-na Foil”: Fianna Fáil is a center to center-right party. It is to the left of Fine Gael, but not by much. Fianna Fáil is Fine Gael’s arch political rival, but is currently outside the coalition government, in the opposition. Fianna Fáil was in power at the time of the economic collapse and had unprecedented losses is the subsequent election.
Labour: Labour is a center-left party, and is commonly identified as a social-democratic party. It is the junior partner of the coalition government with Fine Gael. As the junior partner, the leader of the Labour party, Joan Burton, is the deputy prime minister, or Tánaiste “Taw-ni-schta”.
Sinn Féin “Shin Feign”: Sinn Féin is a left-wing party, currently the 4th largest political party after the three listed above. It is the Irish Republican party. The party also has a strong presence in Northern Ireland. The party has an “all-Ireland” focus. The party has also been associated with the Provisional Irish Republican Army in the past.
People Before Profit Alliance: PBPA is a spin off of the Socialist party. It is left wing, to far-left, but as far left as the Socialist Party. It is a relatively new party, started in 2005.
Socialist: As the name would suggest, Socialist Party is a far-left party, but has two representatives current in the Dáil.
In addition to these main parties, there are a few smaller groups that are more active on the local level. There is also 16 Independents in the Dáil. They are not affiliated with any party, and may or may not vote with one another.
I’ll write more about the voting and governing intricacies on Thursday. The picture from above was drawn by my son, Isaac. The Tánaiste, Joan Burton, and the minister for education, Jan O’Sullivan were supposed to visit his school a few weeks ago. Isaac was so excited, he drew this picture from a campaign poster. Unfortunately, they had to cancel their visit, which was crushing to my six-year old. At least he learned early that politics sometimes disappoints. 😉