keywords: Dublin Irish Ireland politics political clientelism broker brokerage clientelist urban

Dublin Politics: symbolic dimensions of clientelism

published in: Ireland from Below: Social Change and Local Communities. Chris Curtin and Thomas Wilson (eds). Galway: Galway University Press, 1989.

©  Lee Komito
Department of Library and Information Studies
University College Dublin


Irish politics has often been characterized, in both academic analysis and popular discourse, as clientelist. clientelism, as a means by which people gain access to scarce and valued resources, as been a useful means of understanding some aspects of Irish politics. The term has also been used, especially in Ireland, to signify the corrupt abuse of power by using public resources for personal electoral gain. In this view, people go through 'friends of friends' to obtain, informally, what they would not obtain via the formal system. So strongly held is the folk belief in clientelism that most successes, even if evidence is lacking, are seen as the result of 'strings being pulled', or 'special connections'. This view of political life is rarely challenged; it can be considered a basic premise, or world-view, of Irish politics. It is this strong belief in clientelism that will be explored: how is it created and maintained?

In order to explore the imagery and symbolism of clientelism, this paper will describe political interactions among voters, political activists, polticians, and public officials in Dublin. The goal of such decriptions will be to demonstrate how politicians use the various resources at their disposal to maintain a belief system that suits their purposes. The premise of this paper will be that, whatever historical reasons (cultural, economic, and political) may explain the development of clientelist beliefs, these beliefs must also be supported and maintained through daily interaction. Politicians must make themselves mediators between voters and the state, and encourage a belief in their efficacy and the relative powerlessness of voters as actors on their own or as a collective group. Community and political life in various parts of Dublin will be explored to demonstrate this process; special emphasises will be placed on politicians' clinics, party meetings, resident's groups, and meetings between voters and politicians in Dail Eireann as well as local Councils. Such descriptions will illustrate how politicians use their own personal abilities, the resources provided by their position, and the shared ideology of Irish culture to reinforce clientelist beliefs, regardless of the accuracy of such beliefs.


Initially, ethnography in the Republic of Ireland meant studies of relatively static rural communities in the West of Ireland. More recently, it has meant studies of change rather than stability, but often still of rural communities. Urban Ireland receives little attention; yet, one-third of the population of the Republic of Ireland lives in the Greater Dublin area; forty percent of the population lives in settlements with populations greater than 10,000, and the proportion of Irish people living in urban centers continues to increase rapidly (cf Bannon,1983). The ethnography of urban Ireland is an important component of any discussion of change and development in Ireland.

This paper will describe clientelist politics in Dublin, discussing differences between rural and urban patterns of clientelist politics, as well as suggesting some emerging trends in contemporary urban politics.1 While the average Irish citizen might not recognize the term "clientelism", he would recognize the phenomenon: politicians using their personal influence to obtain state benefits for constituents and, in return, constituents providing their votes. Civil servants often complain that such political interventions are a time-wasting charade, politicians complain that all their time is spent looking after 'bins and drains', and voters complain that they only see politicians at election time, when politicians promise to solve all the problems that should have been solved after the last election. To judge by such rhetoric, clientelism is the dominant theme in Irish politics.

In public discourse, the term clientelism tends to conjure up images of corruption and illegality: anything from fixing parking tickets to regional investment plans, all for sale to the highest bidder or the one with the best connections. Politicians, political commentators, and academics have variously blamed clientelism for trivializing Irish politics, impeding industrial development, and perpetuating poverty. For some, clientelism is an expression of rural values: people used to face-to-face interaction are afraid of bureaucracy and so seek assistance from politicians. For others, it is a relic of colonial domination: in order to deal with an unyielding and foreign administration, middle-men who might have special influence were sought (for a selection of such discussions, see the Dail Debates on Dail reform, 26-27 January and 2-3 February, 1983; the Public Services Organisation Review Group [Devlin Report],1969; Hazelkorn,1986; Higgins,1982; O'Connell,1982). Clientelism has often been discussed in moral terms, rather than as a set of behaviors which emerge is specific circumstances, for specific reasons.

Given the importance clientelism is often accorded in public and political discourse, this lack of detailed analysis is, itself, significant. In actual fact, clientelism, defined as a means of obtaining state resources, is accorded a significance which ethnographic description shows it does not deserve. Clientelist exchanges do not constitute the primary mode by which state resources are allocated, they are more 'addenda' to the existing formal structure of allocations (for this distinction, see Lande,1977; Eisenstadt and Roniger,1984). An examination of clientelism in urban areas demonstrates that clientelism is, by and large, symbolic. The puzzle is why it occupies center stage in Irish politics.

Political clientelism

To briefly review the clientelist literature, anthropological studies of clientelism originated with studies of peasant communities (e.g., Mintz and Wolf,1950; Pitt-Rivers,1961; Wolf,1956). Such relationships exist in many parts of the world, in non-peasant as well as peasant societies: the Mediterranean, Latin America, Africa, and Asia (see Eisenstadt and Roniger,1984; Powell,1977). All of these relationships Exhibit some common characteristics: they are between people of unequal socio-economic status, they are personal and face-to-face, they are voluntary, and they persist over time (for a sample of various definitions, see Eisenstadt and Roniger,1984; Powell,1977; Clapham,1982; Scott,1977; Graziano,1975). Pitt-Rivers' (1961) characterization of them as 'lop-sided friendships' evokes the mixture of economic transaction and moral value which seems to separate such relations from simple economic domination and exploitation on one hand, and egalitarian aspirations of reciprocity on the other.

One who provides valued goods because he controls them himself is a patron; the resources are in his 'giving'. One who does not directly control the resources, but has special influence over, or contact with, those who do, is a broker. The resource which a broker provides is his special influence or contact (Boissevain,1974; Paine,1971). In both cases, the element of monopoly is crucial. It is a broker's or patron's exclusive access to valued resources which makes clients depend on them and which permits brokers and patrons to 'charge' for their services (cf Silverman,1965). Clientelist exchanges depend on, and derive from, both inequality and monopoly.

Descriptions of Irish politics seem to fit the clientelist model. Politicians appear to 'privatize' state benefits by claiming credit for providing citizens with their legal entitlements, and so build clienteles among the voters to assure themselves of electoral success. The stereotype of Irish politics is the personal exchange between politician and voter in which the politician uses his influence to obtain state benefits for the constituent, and the constituent provides electoral support in return.

Clientelism became the dominant descriptive model for Irish politics after Chubb (1963) described politicians as local men who looked after their constituent's interests by 'going about persecuting civil servants'. Within the clientelist framework, the first descriptions of local politics came from Cork (Bax,1976), and Donegal (Sacks,1976), and a more recent study includes material from Kildare (Carty,1981). These studies emphasized the personal contacts of politicians and their manipulation of clients during factional conflicts, as well as the diffuse economic and moral bonds between politician and voter.

These descriptions of Irish politics raise a number of issues. A particular criticism of Irish studies has been their tendency to see clientelism as a consequence of peasant values: early studies linked clientelism to rural values, which were locally oriented and rooted in face-to-face contacts (see Gibbon and Higgins,1974; O'Connell,1982; Garvin,1982; Komito,1984; Higgins,1982). The studies giving rise to this description of politics have been rural studies. What of clientelism in the urban context? This article will show how clientelist politics in Dublin differs considerably from rural politics. The social context of Dublin politics is different, and the basis for clientelist exchanges is very fragile. The result is a relatively transitory exchange, involving a symbolic, rather than material exchange, between voter and politician.


Ireland's industrialization and modernization over the past twenty years has been felt most strongly in Dublin and the city has grown more rapidly than anywhere else in Ireland. The industrial initiatives of the 1950's were to provide jobs in rural areas. As agriculture became more capital intensive, it was hoped that there would be enough industrial jobs to absorb the excess labor. Instead, industrial development enhanced Dublin's dominant position as Ireland's commercial and administrative center, and Dublin expanded rapidly.

Dublin's rapid growth in recent decades has created new problems and exacerbated existing ones. The administration of government services is uniform throughout Ireland, so many services in Dublin are allocated according to principles more suited to rural communities and small towns. Rapid growth and increased density create special problems in Dublin. Social welfare is one example of this; the administrative machinery has not been able to cope with the increased need, resulting in delays and dissatisfaction. Employment prospects are also affected by Dublin's growth. Any increase in Dublin employment has been in white-collar jobs. Blue-collar workers in inner Dublin, with insufficient training facilities, remain unemployed.

The most important scarcity which has resulted from rapid growth, and profoundly altering the very structure of Dublin, is the scarcity of housing. The process of obtaining housing creates different communities in Dublin. Academic studies point up something that most Dubliners know intuitively: Dublin is socially divided into distinct housing areas (NESC,1981:75-115; Hourihan,1978:314; Brady and Parker,1975). There are, for example, the newly built private housing estates on the edge of the city. These houses have, largely, been built since 1960 and are owned by young middle-class families. Then there are the Corporation estates, housing areas built by the local authority outside the inner city to provide housing for those unable to afford private housing. There is the inner city area, where urban blight and unemployment creates social trauma, and there are the older residential areas that are well established and inhabited by well-to-do families. The rules and constraints of obtaining housing finance, combined with the heavy demand for housing, means that specific socio-economic groups are virtually directed to certain areas of Dublin (cf Baker and O'Brien,1979; Joyce and McCashin,1981). Social categories are constituted as distinct social communities.

Private housing estates, composed largely of recently-married, middle-class families, sprung up at the edge of the city since the 1960's. These areas have the fastest growing population (both in numbers and relative age) and it is here that community and commercial services are strained to keep pace with housing developments. The bus service might not have been extended to get to the new estate; there may be no sign of telephones being installed; there may be no shops in the area; or the local school has not yet been built. The large family size and the preponderance of young children puts such great pressure on specialized facilities such as schools, community centers, and parks.

In contrast, the local authority estates consist of rented public housing, for those who cannot afford to purchase their own house. The demand for such housing exceeds the supply, leading to a long waiting list of applicants. Like the private housing estates, the post-1940's Corporation estates tend to be clustered together, on the fringes of the 1940 urban boundary. In the Corporation estates, a high percentage of residents need jobs, and they are less likely to have the necessary skills to get white-collar or technologically sophisticated jobs. They are also more likely to need social welfare assistance and free medical assistance. People's dependence on state assistance is great, and the bureaucracy's failure to keep pace with increased demand for assistance is keenly felt in these areas.

All the problems of piecemeal delivery of services discussed for the private estates also apply to Corporation estates. The consequences are worse in these estates however, due to economic deprivation. Residents are not able to get into their car to drive to a shopping center elsewhere, nor are they able to use the office phone for personal purposes.

Many Dublin residents, regardless of their social or geographical position, are dependent on the state for direct or indirect financial support. When individuals want jobs, houses, parks, or roads, they look to the state. Rarely do they approach the state bureaucracy directly. The bureaucracy is not accessible to the public: it is anonymous and does not provide evidence of impartiality. There is a basic lack of trust; most people believe that the state does not 'give' benefits, but that people must 'get' benefits (cf Raven and Whelan 1976). So, to whom can people look for assistance is 'getting' benefits?

Rapid growth has led to social disruption in the new areas of Dublin - in both the middle-class private housing estates, where people don't know one another, and the working-class estates where people have been plucked from inner city and are isolated, without friends or relations. In both cases, there is no economic infra-structure, no shops, no telephones, no parks, and so on. Most importantly, there is no social infra-structure. In a rural parish, there are local figures who have prestige, such as priest, teacher, guard (policeman), and there is a structure linking those figures with individuals in the community. The same figures are important in urban communities, but they are not linked with the rest of the community. In the urban context, with specialized rather than over-lapping roles, mobility, and anonymity, it is the politician who is the prime link between the individual and the state. Voters believe that the assistance of politicians is the best guarantee for receiving state benefits, and surveys show that people remember this when voting (Radio Telefis Eireann,1976; Sinnott,1978).

Voters in public housing areas are most likely to participate in clientelism. Their greater economic need, and consequent dependence on state assistance, is a major reason for this, but restricted access to alternate brokers is also a factor. There is, in Ireland, a 'tendency to operate through personal contacts rather than through organizational procedures' (Pyne,1974:34), and, with a relatively small population of just over three million, this is hardly surprising. However, the resource of 'personal contacts' is unevenly distributed throughout the population. Middle-class residents have the knowledge to deal with bureaucrats directly, or have alternative contacts besides politicians. Their access via personal friends, neighbors, or relations decreases their dependence on politicians. For less privileged citizens, the range of possible contacts remains limited. It is especially in the working-class areas of Dublin, that the local politician is the main link between the individual and the bureaucracy.

Dublin clientelism

The preceding description of Dublin appears to match the clientelist model: the politician is a broker who mediates between the individuals and the bureaucracy. Yet, this appearance is misleading. There is no doubt that clientelist rhetoric dominates the language of politics and elections; but to accept such claims at face value provides too simplistic a picture. In fact, there appears to be relatively little overt corruption; the bureaucracy is fairly invulnerable to political pressure, so politicians are unable to exercise as much influence as they might wish. Most often, politicians claim personal credit for providing legal entitlements. The people, in the end, receive only the benefits which they deserve. In that sense, there is little 'real' patronage involved in Dublin clientelism.

Yet clientelism is not necessarily about material resources. In the rapidly expanding areas of Dublin, it is also about information and access. Many people do not understand the bureaucratic system well enough to obtain all that they are entitled to. The central bureaucracy administers many of the services on which people depend (e.g., social welfare, employment programs, house grants). Application and granting procedures have grown complicated, through ad-hoc additions, and are very difficult for non-specialists to understand. To make matters worse, there is little effort made to explain procedures to those who need the assistance (cf Coolock Community Law Centre,1981; Barrington,1982). The politician is one expert who can be trusted to assist them through the bureaucratic maze, and provide a state service that might otherwise be denied. Even at local level, officials are more responsive to politicians than to citizens. Citizens are viewed as unpredictable, and thus dangerous, quantities, while Politicians are predictable and thus much safer. In this situation, politicians are able to market their specialist knowledge of state resources as well as their access to bureaucrats who allocate such resources. Voters need state resources, and hope that politicians will assist them. For voters, politicians are an important insurance policy. However, they have no reason to trust politicians, and so must try to make some claim on them in order to establish an equivalence that could be the basis of reciprocity.

There is a valuable resource which they can use as a 'bargaining chip': their vote. Politicians hope for votes, but, in urban areas, they are not in a position to demand votes; politicians have no means of checking whether the promised vote is delivered. The clientelist exchanges described in Bax and Sacks involve long-term bonds between individuals in which personal loyalty and trust were important elements of the exchange. In Dublin, however, (and especially in the newly built estates) clientelist exchanges are instrumental, short-term, and narrowly defined (cf Scott,1977). The voter wants specific assistance, and no enduring bond is created by the exchange. These exchanges more closely resemble market exchanges, and lack elements associated with traditional clientelism.

There is a number of reasons why short-term, instrumental transactions have emerged. In Irish elections, votes are cast according to proportional representation, with a single transferable vote (PR-STV). Voters rank the candidates in order of their preferences: their vote is transferred down from higher to lower preference as candidates are eliminated. Furthermore, Ireland has multi-seat constituencies, so that political parties run a number of candidates, usually more than the number of likely seats to be obtained (for more details about PR-STV and its effects, see Chubb,1978; Sacks,1970; Carty,1981; and Sinnott,1978). The votes of party faithful cannot be won by appealing to party policy or loyalty to the party leader; the candidate must obtain personal support. The combination of strong party loyalty and PR-STV in multi-seat constituencies makes politicians vulnerable to public demands; they cannot afford to alienate possible voters. Thus, voters can make demands on politicians, while offering little in return.

These circumstances exist throughout Ireland, but urban politicians are particularly at the mercy of voters. In a rural locale, networks of family, kinsmen, in-laws, and friends can penetrate and mobilize communities, ensuring a personal electoral base that is independent of the political party. This provides a dependable electoral power base which is independent of the party structure, and a machine that gets people out to vote. In urban areas, social and residential mobility undermines such widespread networks of kinship and friendship. Urban politicians lack dependable non-political support. Politicians must create their own links with organizations and voters, and create their own personal supporters. They must depend on their reputation as politicians who look after the constituency, rather than any social, economic, or kinship based support.

Thus, politicians must maximize their potential vote as much as possible, and so do things that have little direct benefit. Politicians are often asked to fill out applications for grants or other state assistance which the applicant could have filled out himself. The politician dares not refuse, and if the voter is asked why the politician should carry out such a secretarial function, they reply 'Sure, isn't that what we elected him for?'

This then is the central issue for the analysis of clientelist politics in Dublin: with no material incentives to 'buy' votes, no non-political links binding voter to politician, and no means of ensuring voter loyalty for services performed, how do politicians maintain their electoral support? Politicians emphasize moral commitment and mutual solidarity in their exchanges with voters, in an uphill battle to obtain the electoral support which they do not have the power to demand. A voter claims assistance as a 'right'; the politician attempts to define the exchange as one of personal 'obligation'.

Images of Personalism

Dublin politics becomes a process of creating personal links, however tenuous, with the electorate. Anywhere in Dublin, politicians' activities are broadly similar. Politicians are 'pivots' around which community activities revolve. At any well publicized local meeting, one finds politicians, and indeed, at all community events, one finds politicians. At the opening of a new church or new community hall, one finds most of the local politicians. If a community benefit is taking place, politicians are somehow associated with the proceedings. Politicians always contribute to 'worthy causes', usually when they are in pubs or public meetings. Rare is the politician who does not buy drinks for companions and supporters at such events, even if he himself does not drink. It is accepted as a necessary part of political life.

Political life becomes an endless series of meetings: local authority meetings, Dail meetings, committee meetings, public meetings, community meetings, party branch meetings, residents' group meetings, school meetings, and protest meetings. Meetings are a 'cheap', efficient, and further-reaching substitute for direct personal contacts. Many a politician leaves a council meeting in order to attend a community or residents' meeting, and after the residents meeting, he might have a party branch meeting where he wants to have a drink and chat with branch activists. His goal is not to be a full participant at any of the meetings, but to be seen there.

Even at home, politicians receive phone calls, letters, and personal visits regarding constituents' cases. People feel free to phone the politician at any time. They will learn the times when the politician is most likely to be there, but if he (or she) isn't there, the spouse or offspring will have to take any message. People are no more shy about stopping in; many prefer to discuss such business in person. In addition to taking the details of the case, the politician will also have to entertain the visitor - cups of tea afterwards constitute the bare minimum. If the politician isn't there, the spouse will provide the necessary cup of tea and entertain the visitor until the politician returns. As individuals, rather than party representatives, they are creating a personal presence.

One feature of Irish politics is the formalization of personal access to politicians. In addition to receiving requests at public meetings or privately at home, most politicians also run clinics. Like doctor's surgeries, clinics are held at regular times and places and are well publicized. People are seen individually and confidentially, the details of their problem are seen to, and they either receive a postal response or they call back to see if the problem has been sorted out.

The clinic is a crucial means by which politicians are accessible to local constituents. These are well publicized in local papers and via information sheets put into houses and posted in community centers. Anyone in the area can consult about their problems or difficulties. The number of clinics which politicians operate varies; most politicians hold at least one or two a week, and a hard working TD can easily hold three or four a week in different parts of his constituency. Politicians hold clinics in a wide variety of locations. One uses a betting shop, another uses the manager's office in a local shopping center in one area and a friendly doctor's office in another. Yet a third uses the upstairs of a pub. Anywhere that a politician can find a cheap and private location, can become a clinic.

The range of problems that are brought to a politician is astonishing. He might help one person get housing, the next person to get a job, the next to get medical assistance, the next to get counselling for an alcoholic husband, and the next to get a husband who has deserted his wife to contribute to the family. Often there is no one single problem, but a combination of problems, only some of which have anything to do with the politician's formal responsibilities. The politician conveys the idea that he or she is making a special effort on behalf of the person, because the politician has a special regard for the client. Underlying the exchange is the politician's attempt to create the aura of a special personal relationship. If possible, the politician's action engenders a sense of moral obligation on the part of the voter, who will reciprocate at election day, or before. Rare is the politician who says that a case is impossible; he or she will always at least promise to 'look into the matter' and have officials 'review the case'. Politicians rarely say 'No, it is impossible', but rather always promise to 'see what can be done'.

Clinics epitomize the symbolic, rather than material, nature of clientelism in Dublin. Clinics do not transform voters into 'clients': people who can be depended on for electoral support. In practice, clinics have only a minor direct effect on voting behavior. People who are helped in clinics, or who visit the politician at home, do not necessarily vote for the politician. Politicians are perfectly aware that voters' support is not dependable, and each has his own story about voters who supported other candidates, despite all the politician's efforts on the voters' behalf. Politicians expect that many of their clients make the rounds of all politicians and try to play one off against the other. Clinics, like so many other of a politician's activities, are about image. In a culture that emphasizes personal contacts, clinics are good for public relations. Especially in more settled (and largely working-class) areas, if you do something, or get something, for someone, they will tell others: 'word gets around'. Many politicians say that word of mouth is crucial, and their activities create a reputation in the community. People want to know that the politician would be available, whether they have ever needed to go to the politician or not.

The 'personal touch' is even more important during an election. Politicians visit as many houses as possible and virtually beg for a vote. People rank their voting preferences on the basis of who has personally visited their house. A visit by a supporter helps, and even a card left in the mailbox can make a difference. When politicians canvass houses looking for support, they are often accompanied by a local figure who introduces the politician at each door, obviously sponsoring the politician. Often, a local branch member (preferably one personally loyal to the politician) will serve; a non-party personal friend of the politician is even more effective. The local figure may only be known on the street, but it still creates a personalized link between voter and politician. It is the politician's community involvement which enables him to develop contacts with people whose support will help create the personal link between politician and voter2.

Although the politician is seeking to create a moral bond between himself and the voter, there is still the inequality that brings the voter to him in the first place. The politician is seen as someone with special influence or power, and it is by using this influence, as a personal favour to the voter, that the politician creates that moral obligation. So, the politician must demonstrate his special influence, if the voter is going to be impressed by its use on the voter's behalf. The politician uses all the resources at his disposal to consistently claim this special position.

Election campaigns are occasions for claiming influence and reiterating previous claims. Politicians emphasize their personal service. As an election pamphlet from November 1982 illustrates:

The next time you meet this man, you could have a problem on your hands. ... and he'll probably solve it for you.

The pamphlet goes on to say that

Fergus holds regular clinics throughout the constituency. There he meets face to face the people he represents, and their problems. They come to him because they know he has their good at heart and in most cases can help them with sound advice or actual practical ideas. ...

People have found that he is a man who gets things done ... a man who carries weight in the right places.

and in another part of the pamphlet,

someone like Fergus is in an extremely strong position to put forward local complaints and have something done about them.

Although the process of claiming influence reaches its peak at election time, it begins much earlier. Many politicians deliver leaflets or newsletters on a regular basis, describing their activities on behalf of Constituents. They often have advance knowledge of any new government services for area. If a road is to be resurfaced, trees pruned, or parks landscaped, they are able to announce it in advance, claiming it to be the result of their activities. The same advance knowledge permits politicians to congratulate individuals on getting a Corporation house, and imply that the house was the result of the politician's activities.3

Politicians claim a special access to the state, and 'prove' this access in a variety of ways. When a politician intervenes on behalf of a constituent, it is common practice for civil servants to reply that the matter is being investigated. This letter is passed back to the constituent. Whether the intervention produces any change or not, the politician has demonstrated his special access. No similar response would have been forthcoming if the voter himself inquired.

Politicians also 'arrange' meetings, which produces an even more convincing Demonstration. A social welfare applicant might receive a review hearing on the basis of the politician's intervention, or a job applicant might receive an interview. Applicants for public housing can meet a senior housing official on the intervention of the politician, when otherwise they would have met a more junior official. Neither the hearing nor the interview will necessarily alter the disposition of the case, but the voter still has received 'special' attention, and the influence of the politician seems clearly demonstrated.

Politicians not only claim influence, they also claim 'connections'. They know individuals who make decisions and so can exercise influence on behalf of voters. Politicians arrange deputations to see local officials or government ministers on community concerns. Again, the final decision may be the same, but the voters appear to have benefited from the politician's influence. They may invite party dignitaries to constituency affairs, or arrange for them to attend community charities. They create an aura of influence with their access to the centers of power. Access to Leinster House, where TDs and Senators meet, is a good example of the imagery of power. It is impossible to enter Leinster House unless one is 'sponsored' by a TD or Senator; they are needed in order to get in, and one must stay with them. Visitors are often brought into the public bar. Here they will see politicians and other figures of national importance, and feel themselves part of the 'behind-the-scenes' activities of politics. These activities cost the politician very little, but are very effective.

Clientelism and Change

In this article, I have emphasized the symbolic dimension of clientelist exchanges. It is clear that material benefits do not constitute the major strand of exchanges between voters and politicians in Dublin. This is not to suggest that Political interventions never provide substantial assistance to voters. Voters can, in fact, sometimes obtain benefits which they otherwise would not have gotten. Nor does it suggest that some voters do not feel powerless and unable to deal directly with the state. However, these are only some facets of clientelist exchange, and have already received much attention. The crucial point is not really whether or not the voter is fooled into believing he needs assistance to get a benefit he could get directly. The crucial point is the reason why politicians attempt such a strategy. It has been a response to the politicians' increasing dependence on uncertain electoral support in urban areas. Clientelist exchanges cost neither politicians nor the State very much, as they do not require the actual allocation of scarce material resources. Such a strategy has therefore been able to develop as almost as ad-hoc response to urban circumstances.

The significance attached to clientelism in Ireland is a result of particular circumstances. Because the clientelist metaphor defines political rivalries, it appears more significant than it actually is. The strength of voters' loyalty to their party, combined with a particular electoral system creates this misleading picture. In fact, clientelist imagery exists in Ireland but does not dominate the system of resource allocation. Dublin clientelism fits into Eisenstadt and Roniger's description of patron-client relations which exist as addenda in modern societies. They note that such relations are usually phrased in terms of 'subversive friendship' rather than honor, and tend to be transactional exchanges 'with relatively little unconditionality built into them' (1984:184-5). In their classification, such traits are characteristic of those clientelist exchanges which exist in 'societies in which other, non-clientelistic, modes of structuring of generalised exchange are predominant' (1984:173), rather than societies in which the clientelist mode is dominant.

A comparison of descriptions of rural and urban Irish clientelism suggests a move from a 'traditional' clientelism, which is diffuse, long-term, and material, to a 'modern' clientelism which is specific, short-term, instrumental. It is precisely the specific, short-term, and instrumental nature of the exchange (from the voter's side) which motivates politicians to redefine the exchange as a moral and personal one. The exchange remains contractual and voluntary, yet politicians attempt to cloak it in the symbolism of moral solidarity and ascribed status.

Since the 1970's, the external circumstances which gave rise to clientelist exchanges, and also the clientelist exchanges themselves have changed. There has been a significant decrease in the demand for some important clientelist commodities; many of the resources which were in short supply due to Dublin's rapid growth are now available. The supply of public housing has caught up with demand, and the number waiting for public housing has been reduced by over sixty-five percent. Similarly, the supply of private housing in Dublin's outskirts has caught up with demand, and services such as telephones, shops, and buses are now largely available in the new housing estates. Another commodity has also decreased in significance: social welfare. Improvements in central government procedures (largely computerization) have speeded up the processing of applications. Thus, a number of the scarcities which increased the voter's dependence on politicians have now been alleviated, largely because these scarcities resulted from the time lag between the voter's needs and the provision of services.

This does not imply that people are now less dependent on state assistance. The overall dependence on state assistance has continued to increase, and ever more of these resources are distributed via central rather local government departments. However, politicians do not provide the same brokerage link, because the nature of the scarce resources is now different. Previously, politicians could exploit ambiguities in the system, such as delays in processing claims or problems in filling out forms, to claim special influence. Now, those resources which are in short supply are unavailable simply because central government is not providing the finances needed. There is little they can do to provide the services that are necessary, nor even claim to provide them.

At best, urban politicians retain a strategic monopoly over access to the state, but this too has been somewhat eroded. One factor has been the introduction of Community Information Centres, provide, on a voluntary basis, the kind of information which politicians also provide. Another factor has been the establishment of the Ombudsman, who has the same right of access to bureaucrats that politicians have, although to a more restricted range of bureaucratic activities. In general, then, the politician's special knowledge of central government bureaucratic practices remains a useful resource, but the politician is now less and less a central or crucial figure in the provision of most resources. In short, the demand for services remains, but the politician is not seen as the person who can provide those services.

Because people do not feel as dependent on the politician, it is more difficult for politicians to make the moral claims on voters that they used to make. Politicians work harder, and obtain less benefit from their efforts. They have been assisted by computerization: many politicians will keep a list of 'clients' on a personal computer. This makes it easier for politicians to remind voters of assistance rendered; but it has also escalated competition amongst politicians for electoral support. The result has been a 'devaluation' of the clientelist currency: people do not believe politicians or their claims.

In a parallel, but not unrelated, development, there has been a fundamental change in the structure of Irish politics - a decline in party loyalty among voters. As previously noted, voters have been able to vote for their political party and, at the same time, chose an individual who would look after their personal interests. A high level of party loyalty is as important as proportional representation and multi-seat constituencies as external structures supporting clientelist exchanges. Changes in both party support and electoral procedures are now creating a situation where voters will have to chose between party support OR personal service.

One change has been party support. Two new parties have emerged since the 1970's - the Worker's Party and the Progressive Democrats, both with explicit policy programs, and with a largely urban support. This has only been possible because people are now more willing than ever before to change party allegiance. They now chose amongst a larger number of parties, rather than simply choosing amongst politicians within the same party.

In addition, politicians are themselves dissatisfied with the competition caused by the present electoral system. There is a move to either abolish multi-seat constituencies or, at the very least, reduce the size of constituencies as much as possible (perhaps abolishing four and five seat constituencies). Such a move would decrease the competition amongst politicians within the same party for the votes of party faithful, and so increase the need for voters to chose between person and party. It would also have the effect of changing the nature of political support - a politician with a strong control of his local party, and with solid support from the party hierarchy, will be assured nomination. There will be more competition to get a nomination, but, once the nomination is obtained, less dependence on voters. Since this dependence on, and vulnerability to, voters has been a major reason for clientelist exchanges, then decreasing this dependence will enable politicians to decrease their clientelist activities.

In Dublin, such a move will complement another change - an increase in the number of local political offices. Until recently, there were relatively few local political offices in Dublin, as compared with more rural Counties. This meant fewer office holders who might build up a local electoral base and challenge a national politician. An increase in the number of local office will mean a greater challenge to existing national politicians. Their rivals will be able to act as official brokers at the local government level, and so build a power base and challenge sitting TDs. A move to smaller constituencies would protect Dublin politicians from this new threat.

Will the result of these changes be a decline in clientelist activity? The differences between rural and urban clientelism, clientelism in the 1970's and 1980's, does suggest a general trend to more narrowly defined, short-term, instrumental exchanges. Yet, some form of clientelist exchange is likely to continue, for two reasons. First, politicians will always, by virtue of their office, have a special access to the state that others are denied. This will remain a resource which politicians can use in order to create links, however weak. Secondly, it is clear that clientelism provides a symbolic as well as material benefit. It provides voters with a personal and moral link with the state and so maintains support for the existing political and administrative structure. It compensates for the relative impersonalism of universalistic values by infusing exchanges with personalistic qualities of trust and solidarity. This article has demonstrated the contribution which urban ethnography makes to an understanding of Irish political life. Clientelism is not to be just a 'traditional' behavior, linked with backward beliefs or rural values, but something which fulfills a function clearly linked with modern-day Ireland. It has changed as a response to changes in Irish communities. Further research in urban communities will reveal how the structural changes discussed above are realized in people's everyday lives.


1 The research on which this article is based lasted three years, from January 1978 thru December 1980. Although written in the 'ethnographic present', the 1970's represents a particular phase in Dublin politics, as the latter part of the article will make clear. The research was not intended to be a 'community study', however, it did focus on two locales: one, a mixed-class, post-1966 housing area, and the other, a largely working-class, post-1940 housing area. The ethnographic examples come largely from the relatively settled, working-class, public housing estate, where clientelist activity was greatest.

2 Although personal attention remains the key to electoral success, new techniques permit the illusion of personal concern. One politician complained about a rival: 'Techniques such as using a telephone service and writing 2,000 to 3,000 personal letters at enormous expense could not be matched by me'.

3 Increasingly, all politicians claim credit for the same benefit, and voters believe none of them. Such claims work only insofar as the voter is already inclined to accept an individual politician's claim.


Baker, Terence J., and L.M. O'Brien (1979) THE IRISH HOUSING SYSTEM: A CRITICIAL OVER-VIEW. ESRI Broadsheet, No 17. Dublin: Economic and Social Research Institute.

Bannon, Michael (1983) 'Urbanisation in Ireland', in J. Blackwell and F. Convery (eds.), PROMISE AND PERFORMANCE: IRISH ENVIRONMENTAL POLICIES ANALYSED, Dublin: Resource and Environmental Policy Centre, University College, Dublin.

Barrington, T.J. (1982) 'Whatever Happened to Irish Government?', IN Unequal Achievement: The Irish Experience 1957-1982. Frank Litton, ed. Dublin: Institute of Public Administration.


Boissevain, Jeremy (1974) FRIENDS OF FRIENDS: NETWORKS, MANIPULATORS AND COALITIONS, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Brady, J., and A.J. Parker (1975) 'The Factorial Ecology of Dublin: A Preliminary Investigation', ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL REVIEW 7(1):35-55.

Carty, R.K. (1981) PARTY AND PARISH PUMP, Ontario, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Chubb, Basil (1963) 'Going about persecuting civil servants: the role of the Irish Parliamentary Representative', POLITICAL STUDIES 10(3):272-286.

Chubb, Basil (1978) 'The Electoral System', in H. R. Penniman (ed.), IRELAND AT THE POLLS: THE DAIL ELECTIONS OF 1977, Washington D.C.: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.

Chubb, Basil (1982) THE GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS OF IRELAND, 2d ed., rev, London: Longman.

Clapham, Christopher (1982) 'Clientelism and the State', in C. Clapham (ed.), PRIVATE PATRONAGE AND PUBLIC POWER, London: Frances Pinter.

Coolock Community Law Centre 1980 SOCIAL WELFARE APPEALS. SPECIAL REPORT NO. 2. Dublin: The Centre.

Eisenstadt, S.N., and Luis Roniger (1980) 'Patron-client relations as a model of structuring social exchange', COMPARATIVE STUDIES IN SOCIETY AND HISTORY 22(1):42-77. (1984) PATRONS, CLIENTS AND FRIENDS, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Garvin, Tom (1982) 'Theory, Culture and Fianna Fail: a review', in Mary Kelly, Liam O'Dowd, James Wickham, (eds), POWER, CONFLICT AND INEQUALITY, Dublin: Turoe Press.

Gibbon, Peter and M.D. Higgins (1974) 'Patronage, Tradition and Modernisation: The case of the Irish "Gombeenman"', ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL REVIEW 6(1):27-44.

Graziano, Luigi (1975) A CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK FOR THE STUDY OF CLIENTELISM, Western Societies Program Occasional Paper No. 2, Ithaca, New York: Center for International Studies, Cornell University.

Hazelkorn, Ellen (1986) 'Class, Clientelism and the Political Process in the Republic of Ireland', in P. Clancy, et al (eds), IRELAND: A SOCIOLOGICAL PROFILE, Dublin: Institute of Public Administration.

Higgins, Michael D. (1982) 'The Limits of Clientelism: Towards an Assessment of Irish Politics', in C. Clapham (ed.), PRIVATE PATRONAGE AND PUBLIC POWER: POLITICAL CLIENTELISM IN THE MODERN STATE, London: Frances Pinter.

Hourihan, Kevin (1978) 'Social Areas in Dublin', ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL REVIEW 9(4):301-328.

Ireland, Republic of (1983) Parliamentary Debates (Dail Eireann). Dublin: Government Publications Office.

Joyce, Laraine and A. McCashin (1981) POVERTY AND SOCIAL POLICY, Dublin: Institute of Public Administration.

Komito, Lee (1984) 'Irish Clientelism: a reappraisal', ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL REVIEW 15(3).

Komito, Lee (1985) POLITICS AND CLIENTELISM IN URBAN IRELAND: INFORMATION, REPUTATION, AND BROKERAGE, Ph.D. thesis, Anthropology Department, University of Pennsylvania

Lande, Carl H. (1977) 'Introduction: the dyadic basis of clientelism', in S. Schmidt, et. al. (eds.), FRIENDS, FOLLOWERS, AND FACTIONS, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lemarchand, Rene (1981) 'Comparative Political Clientelism: Structure, Process, and Optic', in S.N. Eisenstadt and R. Lemarchand (eds.), POLITICAL CLIENTELISM, PATRONAGE AND DEVELOPMENT, Contemporary Political Sociology, vol. 3. London: Sage Publications.

Mintz, Sidney W., and Eric R. Wolf (1959) 'An Analysis of Ritual Co-Parenthood (Compadrazgo)', SOUTHWESTERN JOURNAL OF ANTHROPOLOGY 6(4):341-368.

National Economic and Social Council (1981) DUBLIN: PROBLEMS OF GROWTH AND DECAY, Report No 55, Dublin: Stationery Office.

O'Connell, Declan (1982) 'Sociological Theory and Irish Political Research', in Mary Kelly, Liam O'Dowd, James Wickham, (eds.), POWER, CONFLICT AND INEQUALITY, Dublin: Turoe Press.

Paine, Robert (1971) 'A Theory of Patronage and Brokerage', in R. Paine (ed.), PATRONS AND BROKERS IN THE EAST ARTIC, Memorial University of Newfoundland: Institute of Social and Economic Research.

Paine, Robert (1974) SECOND THOUGHTS ABOUT BARTH'S MODELS, RAI Occasional Paper No 32, London: Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.

Pitt-Rivers, Julian (1961) THE PEOPLE OF THE SIERRA, Phoenix Books. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Powell, John Duncan (1977) 'Peasant Society and Clientelist Politics', in Steffan Schmidt et. al. (eds.), FRIENDS, FOLLOWERS, AND FACTIONS, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Public Services Organisation Review Group 1969 Report of Public Services Organisation Review Group 1966-1969. (Devlin Report) Dublin: Stationery Office.

Pyne, Peter (1974) 'The Bureaucracy in the Irish Republic: its political role and the factors influencing it', POLITICAL STUDIES 22:15-30.

Raven, John, and C.T. Whelan (1976) 'Irish Adults' Perceptions of Their Civic Institutions and Their Own Role in Relation to Them', in J. Raven et. al. (eds.), POLITICAL CULTURE IN IRELAND: THE VIEWS OF TWO GENERATIONS, Dublin: Institute of Public Administration.

Radio Telefis Eireann (1976) "SURVEY" - POLITICS, Dublin: Irish Marketing Surveys, Ltd. Sacks, Paul

(1970) 'Bailliwicks, Locality, and Religion: Three Elements in an Irish Dail Constituency Election', ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL REVIEW 1(4):531-554.

(1976) DONEGAL MAFIA: AN IRISH POLITICAL MACHINE, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Scott, James C. (1977) 'Patron-Client Politics and Political Change in Southeast Asia', in S. Schmidt et. al. (eds.), FRIENDS, FOLLOWERS, AND FACTIONS, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Silverman, Sydel F. (1965) 'Patronage and Community-National Relationships in Central Italy', ETHNOLOGY 4(2):172-189.

Sinnott, Richard (1978) 'The Electorate', in H. R. Penniman (ed.), IRELAND AT THE POLLS: THE DAIL ELECTIONS OF 1977, Washington D.C.: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.

Wolf, Eric (1956) 'Aspects of group relations in a complex society: Mexico', AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST 58:1056-78.