One major reason why the Irish political party system has been very stable for the past 77 years is because it has effectively served the needs of the country. For the purpose of this paper the term effective will mean that the parties in combination have been able to meet the demands of the people and provide for a stable and democratic political system. The Irish party system and the major parties are very difficult to classify. The Irish party system does not conform to the typical patterns found in most other Western democracies. Three features in particular stand out in differentiating the Irish party system from others. The first is the lack of any "clear cleavage, rooted in Irish social structure" that underpins the party system (Gallagher, 1985, p. 1). The second feature is the fact that the two main parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, are very similar in their policies, both being conservative in their orientation. The third difference grows out of the strength of the two main parties--the ongoing weakness of the left (Gallagher, 1985, p. 1). These characteristics do indeed set the Irish party system off from more typical patterns.
The purpose of this paper is to show that the political system is stable by providing a brief background of the Irish political system, followed by a description of the three main political parties--Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, and the Irish Labour Party, including their structure, ideology, and goals. Some of the more important minor parties that have influenced political life will be briefly considered as well. Finally, the three main parties will be compared in terms of supporters, competition for votes, and the coalitions that they have formed in the past and at the present time. The paper will conclude with a summary and show that one reason why the Irish party system is stable is because it has served the country effectively. Background
The basic divisions in the Irish party system go back to the Anglo-Irish Treaty that was signed in December, 1921 (Gallagher, 1985, p. 1; Gallagher, Laver, and Mair, 1995, p. 313). In the 19th century a succession of parties in Ireland had articulated a desire for greater autonomy for Ireland within the union of Great Britain and Ireland. They aimed for the restoration of an Irish parliament, such as the one that had existed for 18 years at the end of the previous century. A minority of the Irish wanted an end to the Union altogether, with an independent Irish Republic with no links to Great Britain. These two strands of nationalism co-existed uneasily with the former pursuing its aim ineffectually by parliamentary activity at Westminister while the latter equally ineffectually used campaigns of violence and, on occasion, attempted uprisings (Gallagher, 1985, pp. 2-3; Wallace, 1986, pp. 81-87).
In April of 1916 the Easter Rising in Dublin changed the Irish political situation forever (Ayearst, 1970, p. 34; Gallagher, 1985, p. 3). This effort to remove the British by force failed, but it set the stage for confrontation and conflict after World War I. The groups favoring autonomy within the United Kingdom had declined while the separatist party, Sinn Fein, gained increasing support. In the general election in December 1918 in the United Kingdom, Sinn Fein won 73 of the 105 Irish seats in the House of Commons. Sinn Fein now had an "undisputed hegemony in the twenty-six counties" of the south that were to become the Irish Free State (Gallagher, 1985, p. 3). These victors, instead of taking their seats at Wesminster, set up the Dail Eireann in Dublin in January of 1919 as the parliament of an independent Ireland.
After much fighting and conflict between the British military and paramilitary forces on the one hand and supporters of Irish independence on the other, the Anglo-Irish treaty was signed in December of 1921. The 26 southern counties became the Irish Free State with...