Major national study on Irish voters’ attitudes

Posted on: 31 March 2017

The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Paschal Donohoe launched a major national study  on Irish voters’ attitudes this week.  A Conservative Revolution: Electoral Change in Twenty-First Century Ireland, edited by Trinity’s Political Science Professors, Gail McElroy and Michael Marsh, along with UCD’s David Farrell examines underlying voter attitudes in the period 2002-11. The evening was also a celebration of Professor Michael Marsh’s outstanding contribution to the study of Irish electoral behaviour over the course of four decades.

The 2011 general election in Ireland, which took place against a backdrop of economic collapse, was one of the most dramatic ever witnessed. The most notable outcome was the collapse of Fianna Fáil. In comparative terms Fianna Fail's defeat was among the largest experienced by a major party in the history of parliamentary democracy. It went from being the largest party in the state (a position it had held since 1932) to being a bit player in Irish political life. And yet ultimately, there was much that remained the same, perhaps most distinctly of all the fact that no new parties emerged. It was, if anything, a 'conservative revolution'. 

Profs Michael Marsh, Gail McElroy, Minister Donohoe & Prof David Farrell

The book is the first to explore the complete set of Irish National Election Studies 2002-11. These large-scale post-election random sample surveys are designed to explain why Irish people vote the way they do. Election studies of this sort are critical across the democratic world for understanding voting behaviour and continuity and change in election outcomes. The global significance of the 2011 Irish election justified bringing together a rich mix of distinguished international and Irish based scholars of electoral behaviour to explore just how unusual are Irish elections.

Professor in Political Science, Gail McElroy says: “Any country that values its democracy needs credible and valid measures of how its citizens think, feel and behave at election time. The Irish National Election Study, uniquely, provides us with this quality, trustworthy and objective data on voter attitudes and opinions. The richness of the survey permits us to probe complex issues such as the role that morality and duty play in voter turnout and why ideology continues to play such a minimal role in Irish politics.”

Some Key findings:

  • The party system has operated to obscure social divisions but the extent of FF’s collapse and the direction of defections meant electoral choice was more strongly patterned by class, and ideology in 2011.
  • The health of the economy has long influenced election results but the very strong effects in 2011 were notable: as elsewhere, punishment for failure is more striking than is reward for economic success.
  • An extensive exploration of the media and electoral behaviour in 2002-11 showed that the tone and coverage of the economy during recent Irish elections had a limited impact on voters’ perceptions of the economy, and no direct influence of voting behaviour.  
  • Most Irish parties, especially the two largest ones, are quite broad churches, so voters end up hearing quite mixed messages. While voters can now, quite happily, place parties on a general left right dimension, this does not influence their voting choices in any meaningful way.
  • There was no new party in 2011.  This is in part down to institutional reasons, but there was no obvious ‘space’ or set of issues that could provide a basis for one, although there was a general sense of dissatisfaction and anxiety.
  • FF was vulnerable as generational change over a long period left it with a smaller set of diehard supporters and in real competition with other parties for the rest. However, this also allows for the possibility of recovery.
  • An extensive analysis of party attachment using panel data from 2002-07 showed that the loyalties, even, of strong party supporters were malleable; but also that loyalties did lead to very different perceptions of the same events.  
  • There may have been a crisis but similarities across 2002-11 in the role voters wanted their TDs to play are more striking than differences. Furthermore, contact with a TD does lead to support at the next election.
  • The act of voting is the result of a sense of duty and this was unaffected by economic crisis.
  • 2011 was very much an ‘establishment revolution’. Real change in the party system over the last half century was avoided through referendums, flexible party organisations and the lack of ideological ties and identities.

Emeritus Professor of Political Science, Michael Marsh says: "The first Irish national election study showed us that much of what people thought they knew about Irish politics was wrong. These analyses of the first three studies indicate what is changing, from the growing importance of class to malleable party loyalties, but also expand many of the easier findings, including the absence of any clear meaning of what is meant by ‘right’ and ‘left’, and underline the importance of maintaining this series of election studies." 

Professor of Politics David Farrell says: "The definitive study of the state of electoral politics in Ireland today provides important new insights into how voting behaviour is changing in these challenging times."

About the authors:

Gail McElroy is Professor in Political Science and Head of the School of Social Sciences and Philosophy at Trinity College, Dublin. Her research interests are primarily in the area of legislative and party politics.  She has been actively involved in the Irish National Election Study since its inception and also runs the Irish module of the Comparative Candidates Study.

Michael Marsh is Emeritus Professor of Political Science in Trinity College University of Dublin. He has published over 100 professional articles and book chapters on parties, elections and public opinion, and was principal investigator for the 2002, 2007, 2011 and 2016 Irish National Election Studies, co-author of The Irish Voter (2008), as well as the last five books in the How Ireland Voted series, including How Ireland Voted 2016 (Palgrave, 2016).

David Farrell is Professor and Head of the School of Politics and International Relations at University College Dublin. He is a specialist in the study of parties, elections, electoral systems and members of parliament.  His current research focuses on the role of deliberation in constitutional reform processes. In 2013 he was elected as Speaker of the Council of the European Consortium for Political Research; a position he was re-elected to in 2016.



A Conservative Revolution: Electoral Change in 21st Century Ireland (Edited by Michael Marsh, David M. Farrell, and Gail McElroy, OUP 2017)

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