Irish General Elections Gone By
As the Taoiseach dissolved the Dáil and went to the Park last week, Fine Gael and Labour TDs will have been pleased that they honoured one particular commitment made after the election in 2011 – that they would serve a full five year term of office.
While the constitution actually permits a Dáil to run for seven years, legislation now limits the term of office of any Dáil – and any government – to a maximum of five years. The experience has been that few governments serve the full five years. Between 1923 when the first general election was held after the establishment of the Irish Free State and 2011, when we last went to the polls to elect TDs, there were 28 General Elections. This means that the average term of office of a government and a Dáil has been about three years and one month.
Governments surviving for a full five year term have been something of a rarity. The Eamon De Valera-led government elected in 1938 survived until 1943, but this was largely because the election was delayed due to the war. The next leader to achieve a five year term of office was Bertie Ahern. He managed to do it twice – from 1997 to 2002 and from 2002 to 2007.
The 1980s saw the greatest number of general elections held in any single decade, with five contests. The early years of that decade brought a particular level of political instability, when there were three elections held in the space of 18 months – something that caused great irritation to the unfortunate electorate. It was like a political version of Lanigan’s Ball. Fine Gael and Labour were elected in the summer of 1981 only to fall in February 1982 over the budget proposal to impose VAT on children’s clothes and shoes. A Fianna Fáil government led by Charlie Haughey was elected in March, largely as a result of the deal done with Tony Gregory. That government, seriously damaged by a series of controversies, lasted little more than six months. It was, in turn, replaced by a Fine Gael/Labour government, which managed to last for just over four years.
Coalition governments have a particularly unfortunate record of coming to a premature end. Fine Gael led coalitions elected in 1948 and 1954 lasted for only three years each. The Fianna Fáil/Labour government elected in 1992, with what was at that point the biggest majority in the history of state, managed to survive for only two years. Its collapse opened the way for the Rainbow Government (Fine Gael, Labour and Democratic Left), the only time in the history of the state where a new government was elected without a general election.
Enda Kenny will be hoping that the decision he made to ignore the advice of many of his advisers and not to go for an election in November last will prove to have been the correct one. There have been many examples over the years of political leaders getting the timing of a general election wrong and paying the political price. When the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis was set for February 1981, the full expectation was that Charlie Haughey was going to announce, live on television, the dissolution of the Dáil and the holding of an election in March. Tragically the Friday night of the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis saw the disastrous Stardust fire which took the lives of 48 young Dubliners. Understandably the Ard Fheis was cancelled denying the Taoiseach the opportunity to make the announcement.
When he did get around to eventually dissolving the Dáil in May, the H Block hunger strikes had erupted in Northern Ireland. The H Block campaign decided to run candidates. They took only two seats, but it was enough to deprive Haughey of the overall majority he was so sure of achieving earlier in the year.
Haughey got it wrong again in 1989. While his government, elected in 1987, was a minority one it was not in any danger of collapse. However, irked by defeat on a number of routine private members’ motions, Haughey dissolved the Dáil after just two years and went in search of that elusive overall majority. However, he lost seats and had to endure the ultimate political humiliation of coalition with his sworn political enemies – the Progressive Democrats.
That 1987 Haughey-led administration was effectively the last single party government the state has seen. With our electoral system of proportional representation and the increased fragmentation of our political support, it is unlikely that we will ever see a single party government again for the foreseeable future. It is almost certain that whatever administration emerges from this election will be a coalition of some sort. The stability or otherwise of that coalition will determine whether or not it can survive as long as its predecessor and last a full five year term.
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