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redrawing the map

How the three main parties lost their stranglehold on Irish politics - in just a decade

Sinn Féin, Independents and the smaller parties have achieved the biggest shift in recent political history – but will it last?

irish-water-tax-5 (L-R) AAA/PBP TDs Paul Murphy and Richard Boyd Barrett; Sinn Féin Senator and Councillor David Cullinane and Daithí Doolan; Independent TDs Clare Daly and Joan Collins Niall Carson / PA Niall Carson / PA / PA

THE SHARE OF TDs in the new Dáil coming from the three main parties – Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour – is the lowest it has ever been.

And more than one third (36%) of the representation in our national parliament belongs to Sinn Féin, Independents and smaller parties.

This is the highest it has been since 1933, the last election before Cumann na nGaedheal coalesced into the modern Fine Gael party.

In 2007 that figure was just 10%, and in February 2011 it was 12%.

This marks an astonishing development in recent Irish political history, and a collapse of the control of the three major parties in the space of just five years.

Of course, there have been surges before, but they have all proven temporary. 2016, however, could be a landmark year- the first time since 1981 when support for non-traditional parties and Independents grew for two consecutive elections.

Here’s how Dáil Éireann has changed over the past four decades, and been transformed in the last nine years.

1973-1987: Green and blue, with a splash of red

WwMtTJY - Imgur

For the last 50 years up until 2011, the three main parties have have held between 80% and 99% of seats in the Dáil.

From 1969 until 1973, for example, only one of 144 TDs did not come from Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil or Labour – that was Longford-Westmeath Independent Joe Sheridan.

Just before the 1987 election, the main parties held a now-unimaginable 95% of seats.

However, that election saw the newly-created Progressive Democrats take 14 seats, the most of any party other than the three main ones, since Clann na Talmhan had 14 TDs elected in 1943.

1987-2007: Fourth-party peaks and troughs

O1iFFig - Imgur

The PDs were an electoral force throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, and held the position of Tánaiste twice, but never replicated the stunning breakthrough of 1987, and faded into non-existence by 2009.

The Green Party, particularly under the dynamic leadership of Trevor Sargent, had their own mini-breakthrough in 2002, tripling their seats from two to six.

It’s easy to forget now, but the Greens had a bigger Dáil presence than Sinn Féin for 19 years, from 1992-2011.

That year, they were badly punished by voters for going into coalition with Fianna Fáil, and were wiped out, although they managed an extraordinary recovery in 2016, clawing back two seats just five years after many had written their political obituary.

And in 1992 and 1997, Democratic Left got four seats, before being subsumed by Labour and joining the “big three.”

Between 1997 and 2002, a bounce for the PDs (from four to 8), an increase for Sinn Féin, (then just beginning to get a foothold in the Dáil), and the Green Party’s “moment” meant the combined number of “others” surged from 18 to 33:


However, this spike in support for those outside the major parties once again proved temporary, with Fine Gael adding 20 seats in 2007, and PD and Independent deputies shrinking from 21 to seven.


Sinn Féin‘s 23 seats in 2016 means they will now likely be considered along with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael as one of the “big three” parties in Ireland.

Their size and status will only be enhanced further if the Civil War parties manage to negotiate an agreement for government, leaving Sinn Féin as the undisputed leaders of the opposition.

However, it’s important to note that they had no representation in Dáil Éireann for most of the 20th Century until 1997, when Caoimhghín Ó’Caoiláin took a seat in Cavan-Monaghan.

They added four TDs by 2007, but 2011 was a huge year for Sinn Féin, who more than tripled their seat number from 4 to 14.

Independents did the same, going from five seats to 14.

2007-2011: Writing on the wall for Fianna Fáil

Part of this shift in seats happened during the course of the 30th Dáil itself, from 2007-2011, when Fianna Fáil lost a net seven seats, including that of Seamus Brennan, who died in 2008.

The were also several high-profile defections, mostly in protest at local issues.

  • Wicklow TD Joe Behan left Fianna Fáil in protest at the 2009 austerity Budget
  • Jim McDaid was kicked out of the parliamentary party when he abstained from a vote on cervical cancer vaccination
  • Fianna Fáil lost the 2010 Donegal South-West by-election to Pearse Doherty, after Pat the Cope Gallagher was elected as an MEP
  • There were also defections from Mattie McGrath, Eamon Scanlon, and Jimmy Devins.

2011 Election: Chaos and Continuity


In February 2011, Fianna Fáil saw its Dáil representation implode to an unprecedented extent, falling from 71 to 20 TDs, and with the death of Brian Lenihan that summer, they lost their only Dublin seat.

Between the elections of 2007 and 2011, Sinn Féin’s seat share tripled, as did the number of Independents.

This combined surge meant support for “others” almost doubled, from 17 to 33, even accounting for the annihilation of the Green Party that year.

And for the first time since the absorption of Democratic Left by Labour, there was a significant (non-Sinn Féin) left-wing presence in the national parliament, with the election of Joe Higgins, Clare Daly, Richard Boyd Barrett and Joan Collins.

However, Labour and Fine Gael also had their best elections ever, rising to 37 and 76 TDs, respectively.

So while the number of “others” doubled from 17 to 33, the overall dominance of the three major parties reverted back to 133 seats – exactly what it had been in 2002.

This continuity, amid the chaotic changes of the 2011 Election, is illustrated in the graph below:


2011-2016: Mass Exodus

The dominant position of the Fine Gael-Labour coalition in 2011 was weakened significantly over the course of the last five years.

Interestingly, while lost by-elections and local issues accounted for the bulk of Fianna Fáil’s losses from 2007-2011, it was a mix of austerity and social issues – in particular abortion – which accounted for the whopping 14 departures from Labour and Fine Gael during the last Dáil.

  • In 2011, Fine Gael’s Denis Naughten left the party over Roscommon General Hospital. He topped the poll this year as an Independent in Roscommon-Galway.
  • Patrick Nulty and Colm Keaveney left Labour over austerity measures in the 2012 and 2013 Budgets
  • Tommy Broughan and Róisín Shortall left Labour over the bank guarantee and in protest at the allocation of primary health care centres, respectively
  • In July 2013, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill caused the defection of no fewer than five Fine Gael TDs. One retired, the other four lost their seats last weekend.
  • Fine Gael lost two by-elections, to Fianna Fáil and the Anti-Austerity Alliance, when Phil Hogan became an EU Commissioner and Brian Hayes was elected MEP
  • Labour failed to win back their seat in Dublin West, when Ruth Coppinger of AAA won the Dublin West by-election after Patrick Nulty’s resignation
  • And in the autumn of 2015, Sean Conlan and Eamonn Maloney resigned from Fine Gael and Labour, respectively.

So even before last weekend’s general election, the governing parties were down 14 TDs. Then, they lost 13 incumbents, with seven Labour deputies and six Fine Gael deciding not to contest on 26 February.

2016: Electoral Earthquake


Last Friday, 932,011 Irish people – almost 1 million – voted for candidates not from Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael or Labour. That’s 44% of votes – by far and away the highest either of those numbers have ever been.

The three main parties got only 56% of first preference votes. Just nine years ago, it was 78%. That is as close to an electoral revolution as Ireland has seen.

It’s tempting to attribute the decline of the major parties to the utter collapse of the Labour party, and write it off as an anomaly. But the numbers do not bear that out.

Substituting Labour’s average votes since 1973, the three main parties would still only be left with 59% of first preference votes this year.

The previous record low was 73% – five years ago.

Turning to the Dáil: While Fianna Fáil experienced a significant resurgence last weekend, growing from 20 to 44 TDs, the coalition parties lost a staggering number of seats, falling from 113 seats to 57 – almost exactly half.

u8W6Y67 - Imgur

By comparison with 2011, the number of Fine Gael TDs has fallen by 34%, from 76 to 50, and Labour’s representation in our national parliament has quite simply collapsed.

In the worst general election performance since the party was founded 104 years ago, Labour‘s seat share fell by 81% – from 37 seats to 7 seats.

At the same time, Sinn Féin had its best ever result, ending up with 23 seats, and the number of Independent TDs (including the Independent Alliance and Right to Change) increased from 15 to 23.

Between them, AAA/PBP, the Social Democrats, and the Green Party got a total of 11 seats.

What this means is that, for the first time in Irish history, there are more than 50 TDs from outside Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour, in the Dáil.

To illustrate this point, let’s go back to that chart showing the continuity of support for the big parties between 2002 and 2011.


As you can see, while 2011 was heralded at the time as a “transformation of the political landscape”, it is actually this year‘s election which could have the most profound effect on Ireland’s political future.

Even if (irony of ironies) voters are left with a Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael minority government, this short-term arrangement would still redefine Irish politics, leaving Sinn Féin to lead the opposition, with the possible coalescence of now relatively disparate left-wing groupings.

In this scenario, the Labour party would have to face some defining and difficult decisions about its own function and place in Irish political life.

5EVnsaB - Imgur

This year’s historic surge in the number of “other” TDs is particularly pronounced because of the shrinking of the Dáil from 166 to 158 seats in 2016.

Since 2011, the seat share of Sinn Féin, Independents and smaller parties has exploded, from 11.8% to 36%.

Since April 2007, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour have gone from having 90% of Dáil seats to 64%.

In the space of the last nine years, then, the three main parties – through defection and electoral defeat – have lost their stranglehold on our national parliament, to an unprecedented extent.

This uprising against the traditional parties is not entirely coherent, however, and does not necessarily represent a unified movement.

Aside from Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour and Independents – candidates ran under 15 different labels in this general election.

Nor is it clear to what extent it was driven by a collective rejection of the main parties, rather than a sustainable re-alignment of affirmative support for Sinn Féin, AAA/PBP, the Social Democrats or the Independent Alliance.

So it was less a tidal wave, and more an earthquake.

But it cannot be denied that something is happening among the Irish electorate that has never even come close to happening before.

And events in the coming months and years – negotiations to form a government, the Labour party’s choice of direction, Sinn Féin’s performance in opposition, the formation or amalgamation of parties – could be crucial in determining whether 2016 turns out to be the beginning of a new era in Irish politics, or just a blip in the timeline.

It’s all over: All 158 seats in the 32nd Dáil have now been filled

Read: Labour just had the worst election in its 104-year history>

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