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Opinion: Never discount the 'friends and neighbours' factor in an Irish election

Candidates in Ireland tend to poll best in their local communities, writes Cathal Mullaney.

Image: Eamonn Farrell

IF YOU GO to your polling station to vote tomorrow, spare a thought, whatever your political affiliation, for personating agents.

These people – a candidate’s representative in the polling station – cross off the name of each voter as they pass through during the day.

As closing time approaches, candidates and parties will assess who has voted or not voted and seek to identify potential ‘supporters’ that need to vote if they haven’t already done so.

It’s a long and monotonous process, but one which lingers on despite the fact that Irish elections have changed so much over the years.

Or have they changed at all?

As we hear parties either praise or lament aspects of the great societal and economic changes that have occurred on this island, political behaviour has remained relatively stable.

The role of a personation agent is a reminder of bygone days when everyone in a locality knew how, and who for, a particular family voted, yet their continued presence reflects a stubbornness in Irish politics that refuses to go away.

Recently, I was able to assess the continued strength or lack thereof of our local political culture through research conducted at University College Cork.

The end result of this research conclusively showed that local voting remains a very significant part of elections in Ireland.

This study considered the impact of ‘friends and neighbours’ voting in the Irish general elections of 2011 and 2016 by examining the tally data of 289 candidates across 20 constituencies.

Friends and neighbours

‘Friends and neighbours’ voting, a political science term, is best described by academic Nuala Johnson, who defined it as ‘the propensity for a candidate to receive a greater proportion of support around his/her home area than elsewhere in a constituency’.

It is a remarkable trademark of politics in Ireland that it has remained so intensely local, despite a major modernizing of Irish society and an increasingly urban population.

If we look to other democracies across Europe and beyond, the strength of localism certainly isn’t absent, but its impact on the wider political debate is nowhere near as significant as here in Ireland.

Take, for example, RTÉ’s exit poll in 2016 which revealed that on the whole, 53% of voters said they were voting for a candidate, not a party.

Loyalty is such a key part of Irish life it has certainly seeped into political behaviour.

We like to support local, be it shouting on the local football or hurling club in a championship match, attending mass in a certain church or attending the local St Patrick’s Day parade.

That, too, appears to be our approach when we go to vote.

My research showed that ‘friends and neighbours’ voting was a huge part of the 2011 and 2016 general elections.

Rural constituencies were shown to have a higher level of ‘friends and neighbours’ voting when compared with urban constituencies – though it still exists in urban areas.

Big constituencies amplify local voting. Take the comparison of two vastly different constituencies, for example, Mayo, the largest geographical constituency, and Dublin Central, the smallest.

All politics is local

In the ‘local’ polling booth of each candidate in Mayo in both 2011 and 2016, the average vote won by the ‘local’ candidate was 45.3%; compare that to the same figure for Dublin Central of 19.5%.

Similarly, the addition of running mates made a major difference to the ‘friends and neighbours’ effect. The more running mates a candidate had, the more intense the ‘friends and neighbours’ effect was.

This is unsurprising and involves push and pull factors: candidates will be told where to canvass by parties who divvy up constituencies to maximise the vote they receive. More often than not, this is their local area.

And what of political affiliations? Independents in both elections registered the strongest ‘friends and neighbours’ effect of any grouping.

Indeed, if we look even closer at the local vote of these Independent candidates, the true power of the ‘friends and neighbours’ effect becomes apparent.

Of all the candidates considered in 2011, the top five ‘local’ vote-getters showed four Fine Gael candidates amongst the top five, including former Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

However, in 2016, the same ‘top five’ table shows four Independent candidates returning huge local votes. The sole party candidate in this list was Fianna Fáil’s Eamonn Ó Cuiv, who was also in the 2011 ‘top five’.

The Independents in this list – Michael Fitzmaurice, Denis Naughten, Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran and Seán Canney – won an average of 55% of the votes in their ‘local’ boxes, within an area 15 km from their base.

The booth up the road

Further investigation shows even more revealing figures. Examining the immediate local boxes of the aforementioned candidates – ie. the polling station closest to their home – show the true extent of ‘friends and neighbours’ voting.

Kevin Moran took 56.6% of the vote in his immediate local area; Denis Naughten won 72.1%, Sean Canney claimed 73.9%, while Michael Fitzmaurice was the market leader, winning a staggering 82.1% of the vote in his local polling booth. Friends and neighbours in East Galway appear to be particularly loyal.

So, as we go to the polls for another general election, it’s worth remembering that as the State enters into its second century, the traditions of the first still pervade strongly in our political behaviour.


Cathal Mullaney is a journalist and broadcaster from Co Sligo. He is the author of the book ‘How Connacht Voted in 2016’. 



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