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Understanding Irish Politics

Updated on February 24, 2011

Irish elections coming up

UPDATE: Tomorrow, February 25, a big day in Irish politics. Voters will be going to the polls in a general election to seat members of the 31st Dáil Éireann. Plaguing the politicians hoping to win re-election are record levels of unemployment and emigration - something Ireland hasn't seen in quite a while. And yet a recent poll of young voters shows that they aren't disaffected with politics to the point of not voting. According to the poll, only 6 percent of young voters will not excercise their vote tomorrow. This could be significant, as Ireland has the most youthful population of any European nation.

So stay tuned to find out if Ireland's traditional political parties, Fine Gael (FG) and Fianna Fail (FF), can hang onto their historic dominance of Dáil Éireann, or if independent parties emerge victorious. And if you want to learn more about Ireland's system of government and what it all means, read on.

Understanding Irish election

If you’ve been paying attention to the news in Ireland, you’ll know that the country is going to have a general election soon. According to the news, Taoiseach Brian Cowen announced the election would be held in March, following which time he would seek the dissolution of the 30th Dáil Éireann, which is the lower (but powerful) house of the Irish Oireachtas, or Parliament. (On Feb. 1, it was announced the election will come sooner as the “Green Party,” which is a minority party in Ireland’s current coalition government, withdrew from the government, seeking the earlier election. Later, Cowen - along with a number of TDs - resigned his seat.)

In accordance with the rules, Cowen was forced to call for the election following a vote of no confidence in the Dáil (It seems the European Union bailout is causing problems for many politicians in the European Union.).

I’m sure you understood exactly what the above means, right? "No!" you say? Ok, then let me explain how the Irish governmental system works.

Irish Political Parties

Ireland is a parliamentary democracy. Its legislature comprises two houses: Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann (of which the former has substantially more power). The first meeting of Dáil Éireann took place in the Mansion House, the residence of the Lord Mayor of Dublin, on Jan. 21, 1919. During this meeting, the body voted to adopt a Constitution and approved Ireland’s Declaration of Independence – formally adopting the objectives for which the martyred leaders of the ’1916 Rising died.

Ireland is not unlike England and other such nations in that it has a system of government that allows several parties to come to the table. Who are these parties? Some you will recognize, and these include the Green Party and the Labour Party. Then there are those parties that were formed way back when Ireland’s historic Second Dáil voted narrowly in favor of approving a peace treaty with England – and even before that. The treaty vote, you may recall, sparked a civil war. (You may also recall that my hero, Gearoid O’Sullivan, was a TD voting in favor of the treaty.) The treaty vote also led to the creation of two parties: Fine Gael (FG), comprising supporters of the treaty, and Fianna Fail (FF), created by longtime Irish President Eamon de Valera and comprising anti-treatyites.

Other parties with Dáil representatives include Sinn Féin, a party founded byArthur Griffith that predates the 1916’ Rising (and was based on nonviolent political action), and Independents (comprising a number of smaller parties). Representatives of these parties are called Teachta Dála (Irish for “Member of Parliament”), or simply TDs.

Who Is the Prime Minister?

The Taoiseach (“prime minister” or “presiding member”) of Dáil Éireann is deemed to represent a “party” called the Ceann Comhairle. This representative is selected from among the TDs, and usually from among the party with the most seats, but is expected to remain impartial. In a re-election, the incumbent Ceann Comhairle representative will not run as a TD but is deemed to automatically have been re-elected by constituents at a general election. This is what Cowen – initially a member of FF – had hoped to do, although if the opposing FG party obtains a majority of seats he could have been displaced. However, as of February 1, Cowen was reported to have stepped down from the position. The election will be held Feb. 25.

What Is the Oireachtas System?

Ireland’s Oireachtas system was created in 1919. This body sat from 1919-1922, before Ireland was actually free of its English occupiers, which is why its inaugural lower house is often referred to as the “Revolutionary Dáil." In addition, the Oireachtas includes an upper house called the Seanad (which is less powerful than the Dáil, as we shall see). Each body draws its members differently and serves different functions.

What Dáil Éireann Does

Dáil Éireann, which meets in Leinster House, Dublin, is composed of 166 members. Typically (and currently) the body is dominated by members of the FF government (today: 77 seats), followed by representatives of Fine Gail (today: 51 seats). The next largest political party holding seats today is the Labour party, with six seats; Sinn Féin, with four seats, and the Progressive Democrats, with two seats.

TDs, or members of Dáil Éireann, are elected at least once every five years directly by the people of Ireland. The Dáil may be the “lower house,” but its powers are far more expansive than those of the Seanad. For example, the Dáil has the power to pass any law it may wish (within the bounds of the Irish Constitution) and it can name (or oust) the Taoiseach, or head of government.

What about the Seanad?

The Seanad Éireann is not directly elected but rather has appointed members who are named according to various methods. This body does not pass laws, but – acting as a rubber stamp – can delay the passage of laws with which it disagrees. In a nutshell, senators are appointed by Oireachtas members on a sheer political basis or they are elected based on special knowledge by designated nominating bodies. The special knowledge panels include Administrative (public administration); Agricultural; Education and Culture; Industry and Commerce, and Labour. So:

  • Eleven Senators are appointed by the Taoiseach
  • Six are elected by the graduates of the University of Dublin and the National University of Ireland
  • Forty-three special panel members are elected by vocational panels (comprising TDs, senators and local councilors)

Why Is There Also a President?

To further confuse things, Ireland has a President as well as a Prime Minister (or Taoiseach). Why you ask? No, not to take the place of the Queen!. The President of Ireland is a largely ceremonial role, although some Irish Presidents such as Mary Robinsontook the role and ran with it, highlighting her human rights agenda. Current President Mary McAlese is not only Ireland’s second female President, but its first to come, originally, from Northern Ireland (especially notable since Ireland has only had eight presidents to date).

What does the Irish President do? Basically, he – or SHE – is Supreme Commander of the Irish Defense Forces and voted for directly by the people. She also represents the Irish people in official engagements at home or abroad, and – while not having a policy role – implements policies as recommended by the Oireachtas.

So there you have it kids – a very basic primer on Irish government. Now for homework, your job is to keep abreast of news about the upcoming elections in Ireland. Will Fine Gael be able to finally seize control from Fianna Fail? Stay tuned!


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    • Garlic Angel profile image

      Christine 7 years ago from Dublin

      Hi jonihnj

      yes there is 'talk' of eliminating the Seanad alright. Mainly from Fine Gael. But I think it is just 'election' talk. We will just have to see.

      The 25th February is the date for the election.

      Garlic Angel ...

    • jonihnj profile image

      jonihnj 7 years ago from Metro New York

      Glad to know I've got it right Garlic Angel. I read somewhere that there's talk of eliminating the Seanad, but I suppose that kind of talk comes up every election. It will be interesting to see what happens. I'm excited to think that, depending on when the election is held, I may be there to witness it too.

    • Garlic Angel profile image

      Christine 7 years ago from Dublin

      Hi jonihnj

      Good hub and explanations of how our system works. Or should I say how it should work..

      My opinion, as an Irish citizen, is we have way too many Politian’s and too may ‘houses’ that we do not need.

      There is a lot to be said for the saying ‘LESS IS MORE’

      I think if we applied this to our government we might just get ourselves out of this mess.

      We, the tax payers, pay for too many salaries for all the TD’s Ministers and retired Ministers etc etc.

      We need more politicians that are not just in it for the big fat salaries they get, and their big fat pensions.

      Do you know that our head of government, the Taoiseach, gets paid more than your President?

      The President of the United States of America!!

      And our Taoiseach has the cheek to pay himself more than Barack Obama!!

      As far as Fine Gael getting into power, I am not at all convinced that they will help us to recover, whatever hope we have left, from this economic mess we find ourselves in.

      I do feel that Fine Gael are more on the side of the ‘middle class’ and as a ‘working class’ girl, well I don’t think they will be getting my vote.

      So let’s all ‘Watch This Space’

      Thanks for the good read, keep up the good work.

      Garlic Angel

    • Garlic Angel profile image

      Christine 7 years ago from Dublin

      Bookmarked for further reading, thanks :-)

      Garlic Angel ...


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