Ted Nealon (24 November 1929 – 28 January 2014) was a Fine Gael TD, journalist and broadcaster. A native of Aclare, County Sligo, he was a well-known current affairs presenter on RTÉ and won a Jacob’s Award for his hosting of the television coverage of the 1973 general election results.
He was first elected to the Dáil for Sligo-Leitrim at the 1981 general election and was re-elected at each subsequent general election until he retired from politics at the 1997 general election. He served as Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture from 1981 to 1982 in the Fine Gael–Labour Party government of the 22nd Dáil. After the November 1982 general election, another Fine Gael–Labour Party coalition was returned to office in the 24th Dáil under Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald. In February 1983, he was appointed Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach (with responsibilities for Arts and Culture). He was also Minister of State at the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, subsequently becoming Minister of State at the Department of Communications when the department was renamed.
He was the founder and editor of Nealon’s Guide to the Dáil and Seanad from 1973 to 1997. The Guide comes out after every general election and is regarded as the ‘bible’ of political statistics and information.
He died in January 2014.
The political party system which had prevailed for almost a century was shattered in the 2020 general election. The previous two elections indicated that the old two and a half party system dominated by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Labour Party was on its last legs but in 2020 it was consigned to the dustbin of history with Sinn Féin emerging as the biggest party in terms of the popular vote, followed by Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.
The seismic nature of the outcome was anticipated by no one in the run-up to the election in February 2020. Conventional political wisdom was that it would be a contest between the two civil war parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, to lead the next government, in coalition with the Greens or Labour or possibly both. This mistaken assessment arose from the fact that Sinn Féin put in a dire performance in the European and local elections in May 2019, losing two of its three European Parliament seats and almost half its councillors. Even Sinn Féin strategists had no idea that they were about to ride a sudden wave of popularity and did not run enough candidates to fully harness the surge. If the party had contested every one of the 39 constituencies and run a second candidate in some of them, it would have ended up with the biggest number of seats in the 33rd Dáil as well as the highest percentage of votes.
In the months before the election the Fine Gael-led government appeared to be in reasonable shape to wage an effective campaign. The economy had bounced back from the financial disaster of a decade earlier and was now the fastest growing in the European Union while Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had been widely hailed for his handling of Brexit. His agreement with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in October, 2019, averted a ‘No Deal’ Brexit by putting an economic border down the Irish Sea.
Johnson called an immediate general election in the UK to capitalise on the deal and some senior Fine Gael Ministers urged Varadkar to do the same. Instead he opted to wait, publicly expressing his desire for an election in May, 2020. Forewarned, the Opposition moved to close off this option and piled on the pressure in the closing weeks of 2019. There was a damaging controversy surrounding the resignation of Cork Fine Gael TD Dara Murphy to take up a position with the EPP in Brussels. He had been working for the EPP for more than a year but had continued to sign in to Leinster House on his way to and from Brussels and was in receipt of a Dáil salary and expenses.
In early December the Government only had a majority of three on a motion of confidence in Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy. Minister for Health Simon Harris became the next target and when he was lined up for a vote of confidence in the New Year, Varadkar decided he had no option but to call an election. On January 14th he asked President Higgins to dissolve the Dáil with an election to be held on February 8th. Fine Gael was always going to face an uphill battle to retain power after nine continuous years in office but the campaign started off on the worst possible note when a homeless man was injured during a tent clearing operation on the banks of the Grand Canal in Dublin on the very day the election was called. The incident dominated the headlines and set the tone for a campaign in which the Opposition succeeded in keeping an unrelenting focus on the Government’s weak spots, housing and health, while the major achievements on the economy and Brexit barely featured.
The first opinion poll of the campaign undertaken for the Sunday Times by Behaviour and Attitudes on the day the election was called showed Fianna Fáil on 32 per cent with Fine Gael trailing far behind on 20 per cent, closely followed by Sinn Fein on 19 per cent with the Greens on 7 per cent and Labour on 4 per cent. For a brief period it seemed that Fianna Fáil was on course to recover its traditional position as the biggest party in the State. A few days later the first Ipsos, MRBI poll for The Irish Times put a different complexion on the race. Fianna Fáil was ahead on 25 per cent following by Fine Gael on 23 per cent but the big news was that Sinn Féin was up seven points to 21 per cent. The election was suddenly a three horse race.
As for issues 40 per cent of people told the pollsters that health was the most important factor in deciding how they would vote, followed by 32 per cent who said it was housing. Just 8 per cent were influenced by the economy and a paltry 3 per cent by Brexit. Fine Gael clearly had no traction with a majority of voters while Sinn Féin with its message of “change” and its emphasis on the need for reform of health and housing was in tune with the public mood. Fianna Fáil fell between the two stools, attacking Government failures but emphasising its role as a responsible Opposition through the confidence and supply arrangement over the previous four years.
The final Irish Times poll of the campaign on February 3rd confirmed that a massive election turn-up was on the cards. Fine Gael was down to 20 per cent, behind Fianna Fáil on 23 per cent but the real shock was that Sinn Féin had surged into first place with 25 per cent. The mood for change swept everything before it to an extent nobody in any party anticipated even in the early days of the campaign. Patricia Ryan, the Sinn Féin candidate in Kildare South, even went on a foreign holiday during the campaign and yet still topped the poll. Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald who had been under pressure after the poor European and local election results became the dominant figure as the campaign entered its final days. RTE had initially planned to exclude her from the main leaders’ debate but had to do a U-turn and allow her to participate with Leo Varadkar and Micheal Martin.
A feature of the campaign was the dominance of Sinn Féin on social media. A study by academics Jane Suiter and Kirsty Park found that Sinn Féin vastly outperformed its rivals with an “anti-elite populist narrative”. During the campaign Sinn Féin had 567,020 ‘interactions’ or responses, compared to 55,152 for Fine Gael.
The opinion polls had prepared the country for a political upset but the scale of the change still came as a shock when the votes were counted on February 9th. Sinn Féin was in first place in terms of the popular vote with 24.5 per cent as against 22.2 per cent for Fianna Fáil and 20.9 per cent for Fine Gael. The Greens came in with 7.1 per cent and Labour with 4.4 per cent. In terms of seats Fianna Fáil edged into first place with 38 seats as against 37 for Sinn Féin and 35 for Fine Gael. The Greens made a significant breakthrough increasing from two to 12 seats while Labour and the Social Democrats won six each and a variety of Independents and smaller parties took the remaining 26 seats.
With 81 seats required to form a majority, it was obvious that forming a government was going to be a complicated process and would involve a combination of parties. McDonald maintained that Sinn Féin had a popular mandate to form a government and set about putting together an alliance with the smaller left-wing parties. However, it soon became clear that she would have nowhere near the numbers required and it was even doubtful if some of the left-wing TDs were really interested.
The political situation was complicated by the growing threat posed by the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic across the globe. The Fine Gael caretaker government responded to the threat with Varadkar announcing a lockdown while on the annual St Patrick’s Day outing to Washington, following it up with a well received broadcast to the nation. There was considerable external and internal pressure on Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin to do a coalition deal with Sinn Féin but he refused to buckle saying at the first meeting of the new Dáil in March. “We do not believe that Sinn Féin operates to the same democratic standards held by every other party in this House,” he said.
Instead talks between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael began and culminated in a joint framework document on April 15th designed to entice another party or parties to join them in Government. Labour and the Social Democrats refused to engage but the Greens responded and after long and tortuous negotiations agreement between the three parties on a programme for government was announced on June 15th. The rotation of the Taoiseach’s office between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil was a key element of the deal and on June 27th, 140 days after the election, Micheál Martin was elected Taoiseach. It marked the end of civil war politics and the beginning of a new era.
One of the factors that prompted the three-party agreement was the need to formally establish a new Seanad so that emergency legislation could be passed. The elections to the Upper House in April had produced a less dramatic result than the Dáil with Fianna Fáil the biggest party with 16 seats followed by Fine Gael with 12. Sinn Féin won just five seats because of its poor showing in the local elections. The new Seanad was unable to meet until a new Taoiseach could appoint his 11 nominees. Immediately after his election Martin announced his nominations, mostly from the ranks of the government parties. Nine of them were women, including outgoing Minister Regina Doherty, who had lost her Dáil seat, and the first Traveller representative in the Seanad, Eileen Flynn.
The result of the 2016 general election represented an astonishing shift in the balance of political power between the State’s two biggest political parties, both of whom had experienced record highs and lows at the previous election. In 2011, Fianna Fáil support collapsed to the lowest level since the party was founded in 1926, delivering just 20 Dáil seats, while Fine Gael surged to easily the best result in its history with 76 seats.
A year ago all that changed with Fianna Fáil surprising everybody, including itself, by narrowing the gap with Fine Gael from 56 seats to just six. On one level it looked as if the old order had been restored with the two Civil War parties again dominating the political landscape and the Labour Party suffering a meltdown from 36 seats to seven.
However, that is only one side of the story. Far from marking a return to politics as usual, the outcome confirmed a continued decline in support for the two major parties that has been under way for many years. In 2016, the combined vote for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil dropped below 50 per cent for the first time in the history of the State continuing a trend that had been developing for more than two decades. It resulted in a Dáil with a record number of Independents, which resulted in the most difficult-ever negotiations on the formation of a government.
For most of the past 90 years, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael (and its precursor Cumann na nGaedheal) averaged more than 70 per cent of the vote at election after election. This dominance was at its height in the early 1980s when the two parties won more than 80 per cent of the vote at three elections in a row. Along with the Labour Party, which averaged about 9 per cent of the vote, with occasional breakouts into the high teens, it meant that the three long-established parties dominated Irish politics in what was dubbed by the late Brian Farrell as a 2½ party system.
At various intervals smaller parties broke through only to fade again. In the 1940s it was Clann na Talmhán and Clann na Poblachta. In the 1980s it was the Progressive Democrats and the Democratic Left. In the 1990s and first decade of the 21st century things began to change with the vote-share of the two big parties dropping below 70 per cent. In 2002 it was down to 64 per cent with a surge in support for Independents who capitalised on a drop in Fine Gael support to win more seats than at any time since the early 1920s. The combined vote of the two big parties revived a little in 2007 in tandem with a recovery in the Fine Gael vote and the collapse in support for the Progressive Democrats who soon followed the Democrat Left into extinction.
Then, in 2011 came the earthquake that saw Fianna Fáil suffer an unprecedented loss of votes and seats, accompanied by significant gains by Fine Gael and a massive breakthrough by Labour. It seemed as if Fianna Fáil’s dominance had ended for good and there were widespread predictions that the party would not be able to survive in the long term. Sinn Féin also made gains in 2011, even if it was nothing like the spectacular breakthrough that had been anticipated on the basis of opinion polls over the previous few years.
One of the features of that election was a dramatic increase in the number of Independents and TDs from small left wing parties and groups. Just as Independents had capitalised on the weakness of Fine Gael in 2002 they battened off the collapse of Fianna Fáil in 2011. Voting Independent represented a halfway house for supporters of both of the big parties when their own side was in difficulties.
The Fine Gael-Labour coalition formed in 2011 had the biggest majority in the history of the State but it needed an overwhelming majority to push through a whole range of tough measures agreed by its predecessor as a requirement of the EU/IMF bailout. The inevitable unpopularity of those measures took its toll on the Labour Party in the years that followed as poll ratings dropped and a number of TDs deserted the parliamentary party.
In the run-up to the election, the polls indicated that the big winners were going to be Independents and smaller parties as well as Sinn Féin. Sure enough, when the election came along support for Independents and smaller parties surged to unprecedented heights with a total of 33 seats out of 158. This was accompanied by a significant increase in the Sinn Féin vote to 14 per cent which delivered a haul of 23 seats. The real surprise, though, was that Fianna Fáil had an unexpected surge during the election campaign and the party narrowed the gap with Fine Gael to just a little over one percentage point and six seats.
For Fine Gael, the outcome was a complete shock. The party was expecting to lose some seats but not the 26 that went by the board on election day. Taken in tandem with the Labour meltdown, the outgoing government suffered a shattering defeat. The net result was that the only possible majority government that could be formed required a coalition of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, but that was never going to happen because the Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin had set his face against it. The upshot was that the focus came on the variety of Independents who were put in a pivotal position to determine who would be in Government. Ultimately seven Independents joined the Government and another two lent their support to the re-election of Enda Kenny as Taoiseach last May by 59 votes to 49.
Most of the Independents, though, stayed aloof from the process of Government formation while the smaller left-wing parties immediately embarked on outright opposition. Since the formation of the Fine Gael-led minority Government, with the tacit support of Fianna Fáil, opinion polls have shown an increase in the combined support for the two big parties to well over 50 per cent.
Whether the experiment of a minority Fine Gael-led Government, kept in office by a confidence and supply arrangement with Fianna Fáil, will lead to a revival in the combined support for the two main parties or accelerate their decline is one of the big questions facing Irish politics in the years ahead.