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Column: Why is Ireland addicted to the political dynasty?

Ireland has a long and weighty tradition of political families – so why do we keep voting for the same people? Johnny Fallon explains…

Seán Haughey and his father Charles Haughey
Seán Haughey and his father Charles Haughey
Image: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

POLITICAL DYNASTIES HAVE been with us for a long time. Right across the world there are examples running from ancient times right up to the present of families that have been influential in politics and the shaping of nations. In Ireland this is no different; in fact it is even more prevalent despite still being a relatively young state.

The last general election saw many of the big names from Fianna Fáil swept aside, but one would be foolish to suggest that at least some of these names could not make a comeback in the years ahead. On the government side of the house it is clear that dynastic politics still exists with Enda Kenny and Richard Bruton both coming from strong family stables.

There are many first time TDs currently sitting in Dáil Eireann who will undoubtedly be the first in a new dynastic line. The question is often asked as to why such dynasties prevail and how they succeed.

Despite perceptions, Irish politics is not technically a closed culture; it is open to any citizen to run for election and to represent a constituency. None of our TDs are gifted a seat from their parents, but instead they must win public approval, and yet they manage to do this time and time again.This points  to something deeper at the heart of families and the public’s beliefs.

Quite a number of dynastic candidates have struggled in general elections, needed several attempts before securing a seat or have lost seats over the years. However within our system there are two paths that ease this. The first is the Seanad.

‘Name recognition is a huge asset’

Securing election to the Seanad is by no means easy and often involves touring the country meeting councillors that you never came in contact with before hoping to secure a vote, or alternatively convincing a Taoiseach to nominate you to its august ranks. Either way it is almost impossible if you are unknown – however, name recognition is a huge asset and if you are from a political dynasty then your name will carry weight making the job somewhat easier.

The second systematic advantage is the process of by-elections. By their nature such elections are relatively sudden and somewhat unexpected. New candidates have little or no time to prepare and build their base or to get their name known among the wider community. By-elections also attract a lot of media attention and candidates are usually under greater scrutiny than would be the case in a general election.

Therefore, political parties have two attractive alternatives; seek out a celebrity candidate or go with a name people know such as a son or daughter of the outgoing politician. Celebrity candidates are highly unpredictable, their grasp of grassroots politics, the hum drum activities, or their acceptance of their place within the party are all open to question and they can often throw a prima donna fit and make you wish you had never chosen them in the first place.

‘They have watched the game, grown up with it’

On the other hand, a dynastic candidate knows exactly what they are getting into. They have watched the game, grown up with it, assisted in it. They have a ready made base of contacts and an allegiances and a recognisable name, making them the obvious choice in a snap by-election.

Outside of these systematic advantages, the grassroots nature of Irish politics often lends itself towards supporting a family name. When a well known TD decides to retire it can often be difficult for a party or organisation to fill the void. There can be a scramble for power among local councillors and others within the party machinery who feel that their time has come. The difficulty is that such scrambles can be divisive. Unless there is a clear front runner, people within a party can be unsure about the elevation of one of their erstwhile comrades above them.

However, the son or daughter of an outgoing TD already carries the imprimatur of their parent and this is the person all party members have trusted. Most feel that no one can be closer to the former politician that their own family and this means that they accept the advantage and knowledge that the family member brings. If a TD has been popular and successful or held a cabinet post then it is highly likely that the local party machine will feel an allegiance to the name.

So if all of that helps you to get on the ticket, what about the ultimate challenge of getting the public to back you? As I mentioned earlier, carrying a dynastic name does not mean an easy ride in elections and many have failed to take seats. Over time a candidate must prove themselves. However, they can get off to a very good start as the public is inclined towards a ‘comfort blanket’ approach.

‘New candidates seem like an unknown quantity’

This occurs where the public likes the outgoing TD and trusts them; there is a strong element of sticking with the name you know. It is clear that the public expects that if they have been happy with the performance of an outgoing TD then they expect to find similar traits in another family member. New candidates seem like an unknown quantity by comparison with someone from strong lineage.

It should also be remembered that over the career of a successful politician they become credited with many achievements, bringing investment, securing funding, doing favours. This list of achievements or favours does not seem to follow the party, but rather the individual. So, if your party runs a new candidate it is likely that people will feel no loyalty to the party brand for the delivery of items by the outgoing TD.

On the other hand there is a high level of loyalty to the name. The favours and achievements of a parent, for instance, seem instantly transferable to their child in the electorates mind. A voter remembering a favour done will feel obliged to still vote for the son or daughter of that politician than for the party they represented.

Perhaps deep down it is part of the human condition to respect names and to look for heroes among the ranks of famous names. In a country like Ireland that values loyalty so highly and where family carries such influence it is difficult to see the situation ever changing.

Johnny Fallon is a political analyst. His new book, Dynasties: Irish Political Families is published by New Island, price €16.99.

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Johnny Fallon

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