Recent trends show the Fine Gael leadership race is wide open

Party elections in the UK, France and the US have been turned on theirs heads:

  • Everyone thought Boris Johnson would be the next Conservative leader.
  • Everyone thought France’s Nicolas Sarkozy would run for a second presidential term.
  • Everyone thought French Prime Minister Manuel Valls would win the Socialist nomination.
  • No one foresaw the rise of Corbyn
  • No one foresaw the rise of Trump


The above data shows party memberships crying out for something authentic:

  • The traditional values conservative (Fillon)
  • The anti-austerity socialist (Hamon/Corbyn)
  • The fearless strongman (Trump)


The Fine Gael election is less likely to display such volatility. However, it will be the first ever to allow a membership vote. It is weighted as follows:

  • Parliamentary Party (TDs, Senators and MEPs) – 65%
  • Ordinary members – 25%
  • Councillors – 10%

With the campaign set to take place over a number of weeks, the data above may change substantially before the final votes are cast.




One thought on “Recent trends show the Fine Gael leadership race is wide open

  1. As this election may have an influence on the timing and outcome of the next General Election, here are some thoughts on the last one….

    At half-past five on the morning of Thursday, March 3rd, Willie Penrose was elected to the fourth and final seat in the Longford-Westmeath constituency. This brought to an end counting in the 2016 General Election, just three and a half hours short of five days after counting of votes had started on the previous Saturday. Transferring and counting votes in a number of other constituencies had lasted several days as well. These long counts seem to be an inevitable feature of the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system used in Irish elections.
    And yet, these protracted counts make very little difference to the overall result. In the 2016 General Election, a total of 385 counts were needed in 40 constituencies to elect 155 members of the 32nd Dáil. These counts in total affected the outcome of thirteen seats, compared with the results of the first count in each constituency. That is, if in each constituency, those receiving the highest number of first preferences had been deemed to be elected (those finishing in the first three places in three-seat constituencies, in the first four places in four-seat constituencies, and in the first five places in five-seat constituencies), the overall result would have been little different compared to that which resulted from transferring the votes of the various eliminated candidates and the surpluses of those who are elected on earlier counts. Compared to the allocation of seats that would have resulted from the first counts in each constituency, as a result of transfers, FG gained 3 seats and lost 5; FF gained 2 seats and lost 4; Labour gained 2 seats and lost 1; SF gained 2 and lost 2; the Greens and AAA/PBP each gained 1 and lost 1; and Others gained 2 and lost 1. The actual election results were: Fine Gael (FG) 50, Fianna Fáil (FF) 44, Sinn Féin (SF) 23, Labour 7, Anti-Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit 6 (AAA/PBP), Independent Alliance (IA) 6, Social Democrats 3, Greens 2, and Others 17. If instead the results of only the first count in each constituency had been used to decide the election, FG and FF would each have had 2 seats more; Labour, AAA/PBP, the Greens and Others would each have had one seat less.
    This relative unimportance of transfers in affecting the allocation of seats compared with that which would have resulted from taking only into account the results of the first counts is not unique to the 2016 General election. In 2011, transfers only affected the allocation of eleven seats compared with the outcome had they all been awarded according to the ranking of candidates on the first counts. The net effect was a loss of 3 seats for FG, 2 seats fewer for SF, 1 seat more for FF and Others, and 3 additional seats for the Labour party.
    While the net effect is relatively small in both elections, it is noticeable that transfers do make some contribution to making the overall outcome more proportional, in the sense of bringing each party’s share of seats closer to its share of the first preferences. Nevertheless, the proportional representation (PR) element of PR-STV, the Irish electoral system, is mostly the effect of multi-seat constituencies, and very little due to transfers. In both 2011 and 2016, the composition of the Dáil would have been broadly similar if only the first count results had been used to elect TDs.
    This does not mean that transfers are unimportant to the final outcome. In the 2016 General election, 23 candidates were elected on the first count. To get elected, the vast majority of TDs therefore depend on transfers, from other candidates of their own party, or from candidates of other parties. The more successful a party is in persuading their voters to give their higher preferences to candidates from the same party, or in broadening its appeal beyond its core support, the more likely is it to win seats through transfers. Differences between parties in these characteristics help to explain why Fine Gael won almost one-third of the seats from little more than one-quarter of the1st preferences (a “seats-to-votes” ratio of 124), whereas Labour, with 6.6% of the votes, could only win 4.4% of the seats (a seats-to-votes ratio of 67).
    For example, in Carlow-Kilkenny, strong transfers, first from Labour to FG, and then between the FG candidates, allowed FG to win two seats, the same as FF, despite FF receiving 9,000 more first preference votes, or 0.8 of a quota, than FG. Labour votes transferred to FG over FF in a ratio of more than three-and-a-half to one, while some 80% of FG votes transferred to other FG candidates.
    In contrast, in Louth, weak transfers to Labour’s Ged Nash from his running mate, Mary Moran, were decisive in his failure to hold onto his seat. When Moran was eliminated, just 26% of her 1211 votes transferred to him. On the 11th and final count, Nash was 386 votes behind Peter Fitzpatrick of FG, who took the last seat. Thus if Nash had received 387 additional transfers from Moran, bringing his share of his fellow Labour candidate’s transfers to a little under 60%, he would have been re-elected to the Dáil (in practice, the number of additional transfers Nash would have needed would have been less than this, as some of these extra votes would have come from Moran’s transfers to Fitzpatrick).
    Overall in the 2016 General Election, 21 counts in 18 constituencies entailed the transfer of votes from an elected or eliminated Fine Gael candidate when the remaining candidates included one or more from Fine Gael. On average, about three in every five transfers in these counts went to other Fine Gael candidates. The share of votes transferred to Fine Gael in these cases ranged from 30.8% (in Cork East) to 87.5%, with a median value of 58.6%. When Noel McCarthy of FG was eliminated in Cork East, David Stanton, the remaining FG candidate, received only slightly more transfers than Labour’s Seán Sherlock: this is probably because McCarthy had himself been a member of Labour for 30 years, and only joined FG shortly before the general election, disappointed at Labour’s refusal to add him to the ticket in Cork East.
    The votes that were not transferred to Fine Gael were more likely to go to Labour than to candidates from other parties: in 13 of the 15 counts where there was still a Labour candidate available to receive transfers, the Labour candidate received more transfers than any other non-FG candidate. In two of these 15 counts, when no FG candidate was still in the running, Labour received more than half of the transfers. When there was no Labour candidate available, Fine Gael preferences were more strongly for Fianna Fáil candidates than for those of other parties: there were 10 such counts, and in 9 of them, Fianna Fáil received more transfers than any other non-Fine Gael candidate. Indeed, in Dublin South-Central, when the surplus of FG’s Catherine Byrne was distributed, 67% of the votes went to FF’s Catherine Ardagh, although her attractiveness to FG voters may have been enhanced by the fact that the only other remaining candidate was Bríd Smith of AAA/PBP.
    Fine Gael voters are noticeably hostile to Sinn Féin candidates. In the 19 counts where a Sinn Féin candidate was still standing, the median transfer was just 2.7%, and was only above 5% in four cases. In 11 of these 19 counts, there were more non-transferable votes than transfers to Sinn Féin. In five of the seven counts where candidates from Sinn Féin and the AAA-PBP were competing for Fine Gael transfers, Fine Gael voters gave more transfers to candidates from AAA-PBP than to Sinn Féin.
    Fianna Fáil voters have traditionally been regarded as highly loyal to the party, with a relatively high share of their preferences going to other FF candidates. However, in the 2016 General Election, the rate of transfers between FF candidates was similar to that between FG candidates. In the 19 counts when one or more FF candidates was available to receive transfers from an elected or eliminated Fianna Fáil candidate, the median transfer was 54.8%, compared to 58.6% between FG candidates.
    When there was no FF candidate available to receive transfers, FF voters tended to prefer FG candidates over others. In the 17 constituencies where a FG candidate was available to receive transfers from the last FF candidate, the median transfer to FG was a little over 30%; in 11 of these cases, more transfers went to FG than to any other party. A particularly striking example of FF transfers to FG occurred in Cork South-Central. Both FF leader Micheál Martin and his running mate Michael McGrath were elected on the first count. When their surpluses were distributed, more than 40% went to the two Fine Gael candidates. However, in Dublin Rathdown, FF transfers helped to elect Green party candidate Catherine Martin instead of outgoing FG TD Alan Shatter: when Mary White of FF was eliminated, her transfers enabled Martin to turn a deficit of 495 votes into a winning margin of 977. Moreover, 1689 votes, or over 30%, of White’s votes were non-transferable. This high transfer rate of almost 40% from FF to the Greens was exceptional: the median transfer in the 10 constituencies where a Green candidate was available to receive transfers from the last FF candidate was just 6.2%. After FG, FF voters tended to transfer to independents and others, the Independent Alliance, Sinn Féin and Labour, in that order. While FG voters are noticeably hostile to Sinn Féin, the same is not true when it comes to FF, as the median transfer from the last FF candidate to SF was 15.9% in the 15 constituencies where SF candidates were still running. In 9 of 11 constituencies where both SF and Labour candidates were available to receive transfers, FF voters preferred SF over Labour.
    As regards transfers from Labour voters, more than half went to FG on average. In Dublin NW for example, Noel Rock of FG received more than twice as many transfers than FF’s Paul McAuliffe from Labour’s John Ryan. This enabled Rock to convert a 510 vote deficit into a majority of 656 and take the third and final seat in the constituency. When possible, Labour votes transferred to candidates from the Greens and Social Democrats ahead of other parties (other than Fine Gael), and transferred to other parties and candidates ahead of SF.
    Sinn Féin voters are the most “disciplined”: in the 9 counts entailing the distribution of the votes of an elected or eliminated SF candidate when another SF candidate was available to receive transfers, more than 3 in 4 votes stayed within the party. In Donegal, in two counts almost 90% of SF transfers went to other SF candidates. Despite this, however, SF’s relative lack of ability to attract transfers from other parties meant that Pádraig MacLochlainn was unable to take a second seat for SF in this constituency. In 9 of the 10 counts that did not involve transfers from SF, MacLochlainn received fewer transfers than the independent Thomas Pringle, who was elected to the fifth and final seat with just 184 votes more than MacLochlainn. When no SF candidate was available, SF voters tended to favour other “anti-establishment” candidates. In Dublin South-Central, for example, 45% of SF’s Aengus O’Snodaigh’s surplus went to independent left-winger Joan Collins, and 44% to Bríd Smith of AAA/PBP; in Dublin MW and in Dún Laoghaire more than half of SF transfers went to AAA/PBP; in Dublin Central, over 90% of Mary Lou McDonald’s surplus transferred to independents Maureen O’Sullivan and Christy Burke, as well as Garry Gannon of the Social Democrats, with FF and FG receiving less than 10% between them. SF voters preferred not to transfer their votes at all rather than to give a preference to candidates of FG, FF, or Labour, if these were the only choices available. This was the case in Cavan-Monaghan, Clare, Dublin NW, Kildare North, and in Louth, where more than half of SF votes were non-transferable.
    As regards AAA/PBP, in the three constituencies where an AAA/PBP candidate was available to receive transfers from another, more than half the transfers went to the AAA/PBP candidate. When there was no remaining AAA/PBP candidate, SF tended to be the main beneficiary, receiving the largest share of transfers in 9 of the 18 constituencies. Similar to SF, AAA/PBP transfers show a strong “anti-establishment” tendency, although they appear to be less ideologically-driven than SF transfers. Candidates from the Independent Alliance received more transfers than Sinn Féin in Roscommon-Galway and Waterford, and in 5 of the 6 constituencies where Renua candidates were still standing, they received more transfers than the FG, FF, or Labour candidates.
    Renua voters preferred FG and FF. Green Party voters tended to give their transfers to Social Democrat and Labour candidates in preference to those from other parties. Transfers from the Social Democrats were somewhat less concentrated, but tended to favour Independents, Labour, and Fine Gael. Former Social Democrat TD Stephen Donnelly’s decision to join Fianna Fáil seems unlikely to be popular with those who voted for him, as just 12% of his surplus transferred to Fianna Fáil candidates, about the same as that received by independents and Sinn Féin, and considerably less than the 30% that went to Fine Gael. Independent Alliance voters transferred more strongly to other independents than other parties when possible; in both Waterford and Galway East, when the only candidates still in the running were from FG, about half of IA voters gave neither a preference. Transfers from other candidates also showed an “anti-establishment” tendency, with AAA/PBP, Sinn Féin, and to a lesser extent the IA tending to receive a greater share of transfers than other parties. In Dublin South-Central, Bríd Smith of AAA/PBP received a remarkable 93.5% of Joan Collins’s surplus (43 votes out of 46!), with just 6.5% going to the only other remaining candidate, Catherine Ardagh of FF. This enabled Smith to take the last seat with a majority of 35 votes.
    So what – if anything – is the relevance of this for the next General Election? Based on the current opinion polls, if a General Election were to be held anytime soon, the Dáil arithmetic would be no simpler than it is now. In broad terms, FF and FG would swap places as the largest and second-largest party. Between them, they would probably have more than half the TDs. Would FG, under a new leader and having lost seats for a second consecutive election, be willing to support a FF government? If they would not, what alternatives would Micheal Martin have? And would there be an alternative to a FF/FG-dominated government?
    At this stage, it seems unlikely that the Labour Party will be able to offer a potential solution. Labour has come out of coalition government badly battered in the past, and has always recovered. In the 1980s and 1990s it faced challenges from the Workers’ Party/Democratic Left in particular, and emerged stronger. But the difficulties facing it now seem more challenging and more numerous. Sinn Féin’s positioning of itself as a left-wing party and its strong Dáil membership occupy some of the ground that Labour might have sought to recover. Moreover, for as long as SF, AAA/PBP, and the various left-wing independents do not have to take responsibility in local or national government, they will be able to avoid the difficult decisions that might undermine their own support.
    For its part, Sinn Féin will presumably go into the election with Mary Lou McDonald as their new leader, but will she be able to shake off Gerry Adam’s shadow effectively enough to make SF acceptable as a coalition partner, to FF TDs and their voters?
    Rather than going into government as a minority partner, will she prefer to try to position SF at the head of some sort of an anti-establishment alliance, building on the pattern of transfers in the 2016 election? A case can be made that some degree of consolidation is emerging among the non-FG/FF electorate – at least, it appears to have stopped fragmenting! Renua was effectively stillborn, and will hardly be around for the next poll. The Social Democrats seem unlikely to have an independent future, and it may be that after a decent interval of time, they will be quietly absorbed back into the Labour Party. The Independent Alliance has so far been more cohesive a force than might have been expected, and the Independents for Change and AAA/PBP have so far also avoided the tendency to split. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely, not to use a stronger word, that these various forces could be moulded into an alternative government any time soon.

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