Queen's Policy Engagement

Election 2016 could be the real ‘earthquake’ Irish election

In the first of a series of QPol articles on Ireland's Election 2016, Dr Muiris MacCarthaigh looks at the changing political landscape in Ireland and highlights some of the policy challenges the new government will face.

Election 2016 could be the real ‘earthquake’ Irish election

Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s recent announcement confirmed that a general election for the 32nd Dáil will take place in a matter of weeks. The last general election, which put him into office in February 2011, was at the time referred to as an ‘earthquake’ in Irish politics. It was precipitated by Ireland’s entry into a three-year loan programme from the ‘Troika’ of the IMF – EU – ECB, and the unseemly collapse of the Fianna Fáil – Green Party government, and it delivered some significant firsts in Irish politics, including:

  • The lowest ever vote share in a general election for Fianna Fáil (17%), making it the 3rd largest party for the first time with a final seat number of 20, down from 78 in 2007
  • The highest ever vote shares for Fine Gael (36% and 76 seats), the Labour Party (19% and 37 seats) and Sinn Féin (10% and 14 seats)
  • The largest ever government majority with Fine Gael and the Labour Party forming a coalition that controlled 68% of seats in the chamber.

It has been an extraordinary five years since then, with notable developments including: the state successfully exiting its ‘bailout’ programme in 2013 and returning to positive growth; the passing of the marriage equality referendum and, perhaps most controversially, the creation of Irish Water and the introduction of water charges.

If 2011 was remarkable for the scale of the change in fortunes of the main political parties, Election 2016 is likely to be even more significant for the Irish party system which has fragmented and diversified in the intervening years. Indeed successive polls have suggested that over 40% of voters will not vote for the traditional three parties in Irish politics.

As well as polls that reveal a significant growth in support for Sinn Féin since 2011, a plethora of small parties, alliances and independents have now emerged across the political spectrum. Indeed, going into this election, seats are held in Dáil Éireann by groups that did not even exist at the last election. These include the Anti-Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit (4), Renua Ireland (3) and the Social Democrats (3). There are also 19 independent members in the outgoing Dáil and an expectation that at least this number will be returned again.

They will all be competing for a smaller pool of seats with a constituency commission’s recommendation of a reduction in the number of constituencies (40 rather than 43) having been agreed, leading to a new total of 158 rather than 166 seats. Following legislation in 2012, for the first time all registered parties competing in the election must ensure that 30% of their candidates are female, though the gender quotas have proved problematic to the point of being challenged in the courts.

As the deadline for fixing the election date nears, Fine Gael remains the largest party in the polls and Taoiseach Enda Kenny is widely tipped to continue in his role. Some suggest that he may even lead a single-party government if lessons can be learned from the recent British case. If the current Fine Gael-Labour Party administration performs badly at the polls, or cannot make up the numbers with sufficient ‘gene-pool’ independents that would ensure a stable majority, then a wide variety of coalition options may come into play. Agreeing a common programme for government is likely to take a lot longer than the week it took in 2011, and the potential that a diverse coalition of interests may not serve a five-year term is a distinct possibility.

Whichever administration is returned to power, they will face some immediate policy challenges including:


The centenary celebrations of the 1916 Rising will take place in late March, only weeks after the election. A carefully managed official state programme of events will take place, with many other commemorative events being organized by other parties seeking to stake a claim. A new Irish government will also have a number of commemorative duties in relation to the Battle of the Somme.


The implications for Ireland of a British exit from the EU are seismic, not least for trade and cross-border issues on the island. With the possibility of a June 2016 referendum on the issue taking place across the UK, the result will be an immediate issue of concern for a new government.

Budget 2017

The new government will have about six months before its first Budget must be published. While there may be many promises of tax cuts or expenditure increases in the run up to the election, whichever government takes office will be bound by a much changed fiscal and financial environment arising from the preventive arm of the EU Stability and Growth Pact. Budget 2016 published in October provided for €1.5 billion in tax cuts and spending increases – the first since 2008 – but the room for extra spending in the next two budgets is forecasted to be much smaller, at €0.5 and €1.1 billion (see Table A9). However, if recent positive data on the Irish economy continues, it suggests that there may be room for increases on these figures, and will doubtless be subject to further debate.

Public sector reform

It has not received the credit it deserves, but the creation and work of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has been one of the most significant developments in Irish government history. As well as leading major restructuring and cost-saving agreements with public sector unions that were integral to addressing the economic crisis, the Department has been responsible for initiating a wide range of public service reforms that were previously unthinkable. Whether the Department will survive the election may be a moot point, but many of the reform initiatives are designed for the medium term and a new administrative will have to decide which, if any, of these reforms it wishes to maintain. Pressure is already emerging for greater resourcing across the system following years of retrenchment after 2009.

It’s all to play for, but Election 2016 is shaping up to significantly realign the contours of Irish party politics.

There will be a QPOL symposium on General Election 2016 in Queen’s University on 11th February 2016 at 6pm, with presentations from Prof. Gary Murphy (DCU), Dr Liam Weeks (UCC) and Dr Claire McGing (NUIM). To register, please click


The featured image in this article has been used thanks to a Creative Commons licence.

Professor Muiris MacCarthaigh
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Muiris MacCarthaigh is Professor of Politics and Public Policy in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen’s University Belfast. He is Co-Investigator with the Irish State Administration Database project (www.isad.ie) and the Northern Ireland lead on the International Public Policy Observatory - a £2m Economic and Social Research Council collaboration with University College London, Cardiff University, the University of Oxford, the University of Auckland and a number of think-tanks.

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