Pioneering Report on the First Full Scale Election Study Conducted in Ireland

Posted on: 29 May 2008

The Irish Voter:  The Nature of electoral competition in the Republic of Ireland, a pioneering study which uses the results from the first ever full-scale Irish election survey, providing a comprehensive analysis of the motives, outlook and behaviour of voters in Ireland was launched this week by broadcaster and political commentator, Olivia O’Leary in Trinity College . Authors of the study include TCD’s Professor of Comparative Political Behaviour at the School of Social Science and Philosophy, Michael Marsh, Associate Professor at the UCD School of Politics and International Relations, Richard Sinnott, as well as  John Garry now at Queen’s University Belfast and Fiachra Kennedy of UCD.

The book explores long-term influences on vote choice, such as party loyalties (typically inherited) and enduring values, as well as short-term ones, such as the economy, the party leaders and local candidates. It pays particular attention to the way in which Proportional Representation – Single Transferable Vote (PR-STV) allows the voter an unusual degree of freedom in choosing between candidates, noting also the low level of attachment to parties and the often obscure differences between them.  Faced with a substantial decline in turnout over preceding decades, the book also analyses voter turnout and abstention in some detail. A detailed study of this kind is particularly important from a comparative point of view as some of the features of the Irish situation are similar to developments in voting behaviour in other countries and other features are in stark contrast to those elsewhere,.

Commenting on the significance of the book’s findings,  Professor Michael Marsh said: “This book establishes the benchmark for future explorations of why Irish people vote as they do. It makes use of a unique survey in which over 2,500 voters were questioned in great detail about their views of parties, leaders and issues in a way designed to allow the most sophisticated analysis to date of Irish elections. As we often see elsewhere, parties are still the objects of enduring loyalties, which can often be traced back to family voting patterns. However, in contrast to studies of elections in other countries we find that in Ireland the message conveyed by the election is relatively obscure. In general people are not indicating their position on important issues, or supporting any general ideological principle when they vote. Nor are they picking a leader, despite the focus on leaders in the campaign, although, as is common elsewhere, there is a significant emphasis on which party is most competent to run the economy”.

“Leaders can help their parties, but effects are marginal, even in the case of Bertie Ahern.  Also relatively unusual about Irish elections is the critical role played by candidates in building and maintaining support for a party. The lack of any clear policy or ideological motivations behind the vote means that elections can better be seen as mechanisms for holding governments accountable for what they have done rather than for instructing them in what they should do. Even then, the degree of candidate-centred voting weakens any potential link between elections and national policy”.

“We also find that relatively few voters admit to feeling ‘close’ to a party, suggesting that parties will find it harder to win the trust of voters on one-off issues like the Lisbon Treaty than they would have done a generation ago. On the other hand the study does underline the apparent importance of the door-to-door canvas in winning support and getting out the vote, which may also hold lessons for both the pro and the anti-Lisbon campaigns. Many people will not vote in this referendum, but as the book shows there are no easy answers to the question of why participation is not higher and so any solutions to the perceived problem of electoral apathy will need to take account of this.”

The research reported in The Irish Voter has been supported by the Programme for Research in Third- level institutions and by research awards from the Irish Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Notes to the editor:

1. About the Authors: Michael Marsh is Professor of Comparative Political Behaviour at the School of Social Science and Philosophy, TCD; Richard Sinnott is Associate Professor at the UCD School of Politics and International Relations;   John Garry (now at Queen’s University Belfast) and  Fiachra Kennedy (UCD Geary Institute) each won post-doctoral scholarships to work on the study.

2. The authors analysed the result of the 2002 Irish election where Fianna Fáil and its coalition partner, the Progressive Democrats were returned with a decisive majority.  The main opposition parties did poorly, with Fine Gael losing 5.5% of the vote and dropping to its lowest level of support since 1948. Labour stood fairly still while there were important gains by the smaller parties and by Independents. The Greens won four more seats, while Sinn Féin also won four new seats.

3.  Review copies of  The Irish Voter: The Nature of Electoral Competition in the Republic of Ireland are available from Tony Mason, Manchester University Press,