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Politics and Clientelism in Urban Ireland:
information, reputation, and brokerage

(c)Lee Komito 1985
University Microfilms International 8603660

The conversion of the original typescript has resulted in some errors in formatting.

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IV. The Culture of Politics

Although the structure of government and administration is based on the British Westminster model, Irish politics cannot be understood in British terms. The superficial similarities in government and administration conceal crucial differences. The nature of party support, combined with a different electoral system (proportional representation with a single transferable vote, hereafter refered to as PR-STV), produces a type of party politics which is quite unlike British politics. It is in this realm of party politics in which one sees patronage and clientelist politics operating.

Irish politics is best understood by using a distinction which Paine (1974:11-13, 17-18; 1976) has drawn between incorporate versus transactional exchanges, based partly on Barth's work (1966:23-24). Exchanges of the incorporative nature emphasize shared purpose for the common good, based on intrinsic values, whereas transactional exchanges emphasize the calculation of individual advantage and the pursuit of strategies to obtain it. Exchanges in the transactional mode tend to be voluntary contracts between individuals, while incorporative exchanges emphasize collective obligations within a group. Irish politics involves exchanges of both the incorporative and transactional nature. Party membership is corporate in nature, and yet exchanges amongst party activists are transactional. Not only are both elements present in Irish politics, but both are often expressed simultaneously at elections. The electoral of system of PR-STV, combined with Irish party loyalty, encourages factionalism and clientelism. To disentangle the complexity of corporate loyalty and transactional exchanges, one must examine the basis of a party's electoral support, describe party organization, and then look at how party factionalism encourages patron-client exchanges within political parties.

Irish politics has often been described as "tribal". In addition, one politician recently described people's allegiance and support for his party as "religious". Such comments offer an insight into the fervor and commitment which Irish party politics engenders. Both labels emphasize the unquestioned loyalty that transcends rational discussion and assumes the status of a moral imperative. Allegiance to a political party is based on more than economic self-interest or habit; it is based on moral commitment. Often, party allegiance is just one strand of a many stranded or multiplex social network, and loyalty to the group thus created is often seen as an extension of family loyalty. People are born into a party, and could not conceive of voting for any other party.

Loyalty to the party does not, however, translate automatically into loyalty to individual politicians. Voters choose amongst various politicians, all of whom still represent the same political party. Individual politicians cannot count on party loyalty, therefore, to generate personal support. A politician's following amongst both party supporters, who participate in politics only by voting at elections, and party activists, who participate in party politics regularly, must be created and maintained. Supporters and activists choose which politician to support, and transfer support from one politician to another. Individual politicians are especially dependent on the support of party activists, and "behind the scenes" clientelist exchanges permeate party politics. Politicians take over local party branches and transform them into personal followings. Party politics revolves around the manipulation of party structures, as individual politicians and their supporters battle with one another both before and during elections. Patron-client relations are the crucial feature of party politics.

Political Parties

There are two main political parties in Ireland and one minor one (see Manning 1972; 1978). The largest political party is Fianna Fail ("Soldiers of Destiny"). It developed out of the anti-Treaty faction, led by de Valera, and became a political party when de Valera split with the more militant nationalists. Its development as an underground party, in opposition to the constitutional parties of the Irish Free State, has been instrumental to its electoral success. As a grassroots party, it is organized from the bottom up; it has always been the best organized political party and lays special emphasis on electoral expertise. As one cynical Fianna Fail politician commented, "the party works out which side of an issue will win electorally, and that's the side it will always be on: the winning side" (Irish Times, 5 Sept 1983). It commands enormous electoral support, and has been in government for most of the Irish state's existence.

The second largest party is Fine Gael ("Tribe of the Gaels"), and was formed in 1933 by the merger of a number of smaller parties. Fine Gael tended to be a party of notables, rather than a mass party, and did not have the party organization or electoral expertise of Fianna Fail. It has never had sufficient electoral strength to form a government on its own. Fine Gael has had to join forces with the Irish Labour Party on the few times when Fianna Fail was ousted from government. Its voting strength has varied from twenty to thirty five percent (in contrast to Fianna Fail's forty to fifty percent), but has been expanding in the last decade. In a departure from tradition, it began in the late 1970's to emphasize party organization and electoral tactics. This was a result of a change in party leadership after a drastic fall in votes; it has expanded its electoral base and now threatens Fianna Fail's dominance of Irish politics.

The third party is the Irish Labour Party. It is an explicitly ideological party, with specific policy goals. It has never enjoyed great support and has only been a minority partner in government with Fine Gael. Its support has never been extensive enough to permit the local coverage which Fianna Fail has always had and which Fine Gael has lately developed. Its very existence seems threatened from time to time, as it loses support both to Fianna Fail and fringe parties (usually ephemeral) more radical than itself.

The Constitution makes no explicit mention of political parties. Since elections were to be based on proportional representation in multi-seat constituencies, there was every reason to expect the emergence of a large number of small parties. With no one party having a clear majority, the Dail could not become the rubber stamp for Cabinet decisions. However, large parties did emerge, and the selection of the Taoiseach and other members of Government is now the inevitable consequence of either a Fianna Fail or a Fine Gael/Labour coalition majority in the Dail. Party politics prevails, and the Dail acceptance of government decisions is usually a formality.

Party discipline takes precedence over all other matters, and a strong party whip limits the range of individual politicians' actions. Individual TDs are "lobby fodder"; they are there to vote for or against the government on particular issues, as their party, rather than their own opinion, dictates. Free votes are rare, and have taken place only on a few occasions in the entire history of the Dail. When questions are raised in the Dail about particular government decisions, the actual merits of the case are irrelevant. Any individual case is merely another opportunity for opposition politicians to embarrass the government. Decisions are thus routinely supported by government politicians and routinely attacked by opposition politicians.

Bases of Political Support

Irish political parties are "catch-all" parties; they attract a wide variety of support, and neither their electoral support nor party policy reflects particular special interests. While parties collaborate with interest groups or community organizations on specific issues, these are temporary alliances, used to achieve different goals. The interest group wants to alter government policy on the specific issue, and the opposition party wants to embarrass the government if at all possible. Attempts to identify particular social or economic bases for party support have failed, and most observers have concluded that it "is not possible to explain Irish partisanship satisfactorily by social characteristics such as occupation, class, religion, or region, as can be done for many Western countries" (Chubb 1982:104).

Although there are no equivalents of the British Labour and Conservative parties, such a social split almost emerged. In the early stages of post-independence politics, some economic and regional interests became articulated through political parties. The support for the Irish Free State tended to be strongest amongst the middle class and large farmers; their interests were well served by an end to conflict and violence. When the new Fianna Fail party sought electoral support, it looked to the rural hinterlands. Not only did Fianna Fail attract nationalist anti-Treaty support, it also attracted the small farmer. Small farms tended not to be economically viable, and many farmers depended on the financial support of emigrated children. Fianna Fail was committed to maintaining people on the land; the 1926 founding charter proclaimed its goal of maintaining the greatest number of "Irish families rooted in the soil of Ireland". State assistance to non-viable farms was a small price to pay for capturing the West, stronghold of both nationalism and also small farms. The "economic war" which Fianna Fail waged against Britain in the 1930's threatened to solidify the pattern of regional and economic polarization. Fianna Fail's protectionist policy harmed large farmers (who depended on cattle sales to Britain), as well as the numerous businesses which imported goods; such policies drove many into Fine Gael, while strengthening Fianna Fail's nationalist and populist vote.

Soon, however, Fianna Fail began to attract the support of conservative voters who now saw Fianna Fail as a stable rather than radical influence. Fianna Fail's protectionist policy also helped some businesses thrive by letting them over-charge the Irish consumer. At the same time, Fianna Fail engaged in a housing building program for the urban poor. The 132,000 houses built between 1932 and 1942 (Ranelagh 1983:242) gained Fianna Fail the working class vote. While such policies attracted new voters, they also cost Fianna Fail support in its traditional strongholds. While Fianna Fail moved out of its strong-hold in the West and spread out to include the urban East, Fine Gael, in its turn, broadened its support beyond the conservative middle class. Although Fianna Fail remains especially strong in the West, and Fine Gael strong amongst large farmers and the middle class, the economic/regional divide has long been blurred.

Surveys of voter attitudes and party support show that neither region nor class predict voter alignments (Garvin 1974; Whyte 1974). Most attempts to classify voter allegiance using class attributes have simply reaffirmed its political irrelevance. The Irish Labour Party argues that it represents working class interests, but manages to obtain only about ten to fifteen percent of the vote and unsuccessfully competes with Fianna Fail for working class votes.

The lack of class politics may be a consequence of Ireland's post-independence situation. It is argued that the social cleavages salient at the time of mass enfranchisement remain crucial political divisions (Lipset and Rokkan 1967). Once everyone has the vote, party allegiances are frozen, and new voters are socialized into the existing divisions. Economic or social divisions which later emerge do not become the basis for political divisions, since all parties, to maintain their position, respond similarly to any developing social or economic discontent. Thus, only those issues salient at the time of mass mobilization divide the parties. The crucial divide in Ireland at the time of mass mobilization was pro-Treaty versus anti-Treaty, and this became the salient division between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael (Garvin 1977). As new economic and social issues have developed, both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have responded in similar fashions, and few policy differences have emerged. People's stand on the nationalist issue takes precedence over any social or economic divisions, and unites people who would otherwise have conflicting economic interests.

With no overt class politics, there is little political demand for structural change in Irish society. The lack of organized political pressure from the poorer sections of the community does not mean that economic equality prevails. It simply means that there are only demands by individuals for their own individualized state assistance. Housing is a clear example of a scarce resource which, in other countries, could become the subject of collective social action. Public housing is sought after by the many people who live in over-crowded and substandard accommodation, and cannot afford to buy a house in the private sector. Yet, the housing shortage is rarely on the political agenda. Only in the late 1960's did housing shortages in Dublin provoke concerted community action (involving sit-ins and demonstrations). A massive house building program resulted, but once public activism abated, so did the money for housing. Individuals remain largely concerned with obtaining a house for themselves, not with forcing political parties to make more housing available for everyone. Years of activity by various fringe political parties have not altered this basic individualistic approach to state assistance. Citizens, especially disadvantaged ones, focus on individual rather than structural inequalities, and economic and social inequalities have never become serious political issues.

Party Ideology

Abner Cohen (1974:65-89) has noted that any group requires some sense of "distinctiveness" to maintain cohesion and discipline. When that distinctiveness is supplied by economic, social, cultural, regional, or religious divisions, then group identity is created and maintained by shared interests. Ireland does not possess the ethnic or religious diversity that might give rise to parties based on cultural attachments; the partition of Ireland into North and South pre-empted such a development. Fianna Fail originally had strong support in the West of Ireland, but has long since spread beyond the West. Although association with a particular region (such as County Clare or County Kerry) is strongly felt, regionalism has not become the basis for party membership. While there is a certain urban/rural tension over economic policy, no farmers' or and urbanites' parties have emerged (except as short-lived protest parties).10

Given the political irrelevance of economic and regional cleavages, what common identity or beliefs maintains cohesion in Irish political parties? It has been suggested already that the factionalism of the civil war polarized Irish society. Beliefs regarding Ireland and Britain became the basis for party cleavages, and so the key to Irish political parties is the beliefs, rather than common interests, of its supporters. What, then, are the beliefs, in a collective or corporate sense, of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael?

Fianna Fail is linked, historically, with nationalist aspirations and independence, and has long been able to tap these symbolic resources. To support Fianna Fail is to support Ireland against outsiders (especially the British). To abandon one's commitment of fellow members of Fianna Fail is to become a traitor to one's country. In Fianna Fail ideology, the opposition party (Fine Gael) is linked with British interests (e.g., Fine Gael supporters are often described as "West Brits"). Supporting Fine Gael, according to Fianna Fail rhetoric, is tantamount to asking the British to come back into Ireland.

Elections are times to assert such an ideology in efforts to unify party supporters. In an election in November, 1982, the leader of Fianna Fail constantly linked Fine Gael with anti-nationalist and pro-British interests:

We arranged [the British] departure from our country 60 years ago and we don't want them coming backing in 1982. We in Fianna Fail want a resounding victory as an indication of your support for the freedom and independence of Ireland as a whole. (Irish Times, 12 Nov 1982)

a week later, at the other end of the country,

We made arrangements for the departure of these people 60 years ago and we don't want them back in 1982. (Irish Times, 20 Nov 1982)

The point was made more explicit by others:

A vote for Garret and Fine Gael is a vote for Maggie Thatcher [Prime Minister of Great Britain], and a vote for Charlie Haughey and Fianna Fail is a vote for a 32-county Republic. (Irish Times, 20 Nov 1982).

These sentiments would not have been echoed by all Irish voters, but they did appeal to loyal Fianna Fail supporters.

Fianna Fail's strategic monopoly on nationalism is all the more interesting because past actions do not match the verbal rhetoric. Its actions in government have always maintained the status quo of partition. In the past, Fianna Fail has been responsible for imprisonment of IRA nationalists, as well as legislation designed to curtail their activities. Despite such actions, Fianna Fail remains the "Republican" party.

In the early years of Fine Gael, civil war antipathies were sufficient to ensure loyalty to local notables. Recently, however, Fine Gael has been developing as a party with mass support. Deprived, in large measure, of nationalism and the Irish language as symbolic resources, Fine Gael portrays itself as morally superior to Fianna Fail. Fianna Fail's political opportunism is contrasted with the financial rectitude of Fine Gael. In Fine Gael ideology, Fianna Fail is composed of opportunistic scoundrels, while Fine Gael is composed of morally upright citizens.

A clue to party ideology is found not only in electoral propaganda, but also in the conflicts among party activists. Disagreements amongst party activists would not normally create party divisions; in Ireland, party loyalty is more important than policy disagreements. Yet, both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have, in recent years, exhibited public conflict on important policy issues; in each case, however, the issue was quite different. The splits offer an insight into the collective beliefs of each party.

In Fianna Fail, party policy is widely regarded to be whatever is most likely to be popular with voters or embarrassing to the opposition. The most vital principle in Fianna Fail has been that members should never disagree in public. Any conflicts should remain private, with a public facade of harmony. Yet, there have been factional struggles in Fianna Fail which have, in recent years, split the party. In the early 1970's, violence in Northern Ireland had erupted after decades of relative quiet. While all Fianna Fail supporters wanted to assist the Catholic minority in the North, only a small number felt that armed support should be provided if necessary. This minority, which included some Ministers, took the view that the partition of Ireland was illegal and temporary anyway, and they would not abandon Fianna Fail's nationalist aspirations. Fianna Fail Government Ministers conspired to import arms into Northern Ireland, and were sacked from the government. Many left the party as a result, and those who didn't were in disgrace.11 The same issue continued to split the party in the 1980's. One faction sees the consent of all parties as crucial (including that of Northern Unionists); the other argues that unification should proceed, even if consent is not forthcoming. Predictably, much of this conflict is actually over control of the party, but the ideological division is real and not just rhetoric. Attitudes towards Northern Ireland took precedence over party unity, and people were prepared to divide the party over the issue. In a party that prized its self-image of political expediency, such public disagreements have been startling.

Fine Gael supporters may disagree amongst themselves regarding Northern Ireland, but do not feel strongly enough to divide the party. Yet, Fine Gael's turn came in 1983. During a close election campaign, a pressure group forced the political parties to commit themselves to holding a Constitutional referendum. The referendum, if passed, would explictly prevent abortion legislation ever being introduced. Since Fine Gael won the election, it fell to them, rather than Fianna Fail, to live up to its campaign promise. Divergent views within Fine Gael threatened party unity, and a substantial minority of the party were in open conflict with the party leader. Fine Gael split between those who followed conservative "official" church policy and those who took a more liberal view. This tension between the "old guard" and the "young tigers" emerges on other social issues, such as divorce, contraception, and religious control over education, as well. Interestingly, while there are similar tensions within Fianna Fail, disagreement does not take precedence over party unity. Divergent views would not be publicly aired. On the referendum, Fianna Fail remained silent, while Fine Gael tore itself apart publicly.

Thus, nationalism and Northern Ireland are issues which define Fianna Fail ideology and which can, therefore, also divide party activists. Morality and church teaching is a more profound issue for Fine Gael, and it, too, can divide party activists.

The Moral Community

Individuals inherit membership in an Irish political party as, in other societies, they inherit their tribal or ethnic identity. A 1971 survey showed that "people with pro-Treaty relations or connections in the past were very likely to have voted Fine Gael in 1969; those with anti-Treaty relations or connections, Fianna Fail" (Chubb 1982:108). Just as a person born a Catholic can only become a "lapsed" Catholic rather than a non-Catholic, so someone born into a Fine Gael or Fianna Fail family is unlikely to ever "leave" the party. He either votes for his party or not at all, but he is unlikely to actually become an active member of another party. Membership carries with it automatic rights and duties vis-a-vis other members. A fellow member can be trusted to "do the right thing" and help the other person. No matter what else, loyalty to the party is first and foremost. Decisions on any issue are seen to be tests of personal loyalty and commitment; a disinterested decision, based on principle, is impossible.

It is not surprising that journalists have described Irish political parties as "moral communities". The concept has often been applied to small communities (cf. Bailey 1971) to describe how outsiders are treated differently from community members. Special moral values apply to community members; outsiders deserve no special treatment and can be exploited with moral impunity. The same distinction exists in Irish political parties. To members of the same party, one owes loyalty and commitment, regardless of the issue. The merits of a particular action or issue are never sufficient to justify abandoning one's heritage. Thus, few people ever vote against their own party and few politicians ever ignore the party whip. It is virtually unheard of that a politician should leave his party, or that he would then be accepted by another party. Politicians who ignore the party whip, for whatever reason, are not forgotten or forgiven; politicians who prize party loyalty above all other virtues are rewarded.

These closed memberships exist because party membership is not a public matter. Individuals are vouched for by others in the "know", and are then accepted on that basis (at least provisionally). Little overt mention is made of party affiliation, yet it exists behind the scenes always. This "behind the scenes" characteristic of party politics is a cultural, rather than political, phenomenon. Party affiliation is a private affair in Ireland, and it would be a breach of etiquette to inquire "what party do you support?" Most people would not admit their party affiliation; a few would say who they voted for in a recent election, but most would avoid a direct response to a direct, but impolite, question. Even fewer would volunteer such information.

The entire language of political rhetoric emphasizes blood and heritage. An ambitious politician validates his claim for support by emphasizing his family background, and the possession of illustrious ancestors is crucial to politicians in all parties. In their campaign literature, candidates stress their traceable family link with a party. It will be said he is of "good" Fianna Fail stock, for example, because his father was active in the party, or his uncle always helped in election campaigns. The personalized recommendation becomes important in constituency politics; if someone can vouch for one's family background, then a person will be accepted. If activists move from one part of Ireland to another, such credentials are important if one is to be accepted into the face-to-face small community that characterizes local constituency politics.

Party Organization

In a pluralist society, party loyalty is often reinforced by a communal "ethnic" or "tribal" identity, based on historical, cultural, linguistic, or geographical divisions. Ireland, however, is strikingly homogeneous; the only basis of common identity is the factionalism surrounding independence. Despite what seems a fragile basis for shared identity, there is a strong sense of "moral community" which enables political parties to mobilize hundreds of thousands of votes. Fianna Fail regularly receives forty percent of the votes and it is the "moral community" par excellence. How can such a moral imperative be maintained, when the individuals involved are spread over the entire country and have divergent economic and social interests? The intense loyalties generated by the civil war only account for the creation of this strong moral commitment; it is the party organization which maintains this particularistic moral community, even within the context of an open, universalistic society.

Elections are won by mobilizing voters. The local party organization, composed of volunteer activists, is crucial. Nationalism or Catholic ethos may be sufficient to maintain voter's support, but is it also sufficient to maintain the far higher commitment required by party activists? The small Irish Labour Party has distinct policy goals, and Labour party activists are members because they consider these goals intrinsically worthwhile. The policies of the two larger parties are much vaguer, and of little relevance to the political activist. A survey of Dublin political activists found that only members of the Labour Party cared about party policy; members of the other two parties had not joined, and did not remain active, in order to pursue specific policy goals. Rather, they were more concerned with the social benefits: "the fun, the night out in the pub, friends and comradeship" (Garvin 1976:378). Since the support of party activists does not depend on party policy, party leaders are free to advocate whatever policy suits them electorally. The only limits are those imposed by party ideology (e.g., nationalism and reunification for Fianna Fail, proper Catholic ethics for Fine Gael).

The structure of all three parties are broadly similar; they use a three tier system of branch, constituency, and national groupings. Branches are aggregated into a single constituency unit for purposes of local and general election campaigns. The branches are supposed to meet about once a month (though not all do), and have to elect officers once a year at the annual general meeting. The constituency organization also meets once a month, and the member branches elect constituency officers once a year. At the same time, they also elect a constituency delegate to the national organization.

In Fianna Fail, each branch selects delegates (usually three) who then vote for the various constituency offices. Each branch nominates the same number of delegates, and has only limited control over how the delegate votes. Elections are by secret ballot, so the personal loyalties of individual delegates are important. When a general or local election takes place, candidates are decided by a selection convention, to which each branch nominates delegates. The constituency officers also have a vote, as does the constituency delegate. These four extra votes can often make an important difference, when the total number of votes at a selection convention is only about forty.

The pattern in Fine Gael and Labour is roughly similar, although there are some variations. In Fine Gael, each branch nominates six delegates instead of three. This lessens the possibility of well established politicians controlling the nominating process, since they are less likely to have six loyal supporters in each branch who can become delegates. In all parties, the national executive can determine the number of candidates permitted in each constituency, and then impose additional candidates if desired. Sometimes candidates are not selected and, because they would be popular electorally or have strong support from the party hierarchy, they are imposed. Usually the person imposed is already known in the area; it is very rare that someone without a local reputation of activity is brought in. Irish voters are well known to prefer someone who knows the local area.

To the extent that numbers permit, a constituency is split into areas and each branch is responsible for a specific electoral area. Members of the branch are able to keep politicians informed about local opinion and concerns, and propagandize neighbors on the party's behalf. At election time, they are able to use neighborhood loyalties to mobilize the local vote on the party's behalf. They know who is eligible to vote and can persuade them to come out to vote. Political success often depends on these local contacts.

The national party council consists of the parliamentary party (composed of TDs and Senators) and constituency delegates. There is usually a national executive which meets (in the case of Fianna Fail) twice monthly; it is composed of constituency delegates, delegates from the parliamentary party, and party officers and delegates elected at the national conference. The national executive concerns itself with party organization and tactics; party policy is left to senior members of the parliamentary party. Since members of the national executive have access to politicians throughout the country, aspiring activists often use this as a base for entrance into politics (thus by-passing the rival elected politician).

The leader of the parliamentary party is also the leader of the party; thus, the leader of the party must be an elected politician. In Fianna Fail, only TDs are eligible to select the party leader; thus, only those who are already electorally successful and dominant in their local area can determine party leadership. The same is true for Labour, but, in Fine Gael, Senators also vote for party leader. As in the case of branch delegates, this effectively decreases the power of well established local politicians. Both of these practices are recent changes in Fine Gael policy, and parallel the transformation of the party into a mass party; in effect, both undercut the power of traditional local figures who are being supplanted.

Each party has a national conference once a year, ostensibly to discuss party policy. In the case of Labour, the parliamentary party is often forced to follow conference policy; it must, for example, have a special conference before the parliamentary party is permitted to enter into a coalition with Fine Gael to form a government. Fine Gael is less bound by the decisions of party conferences, and Fianna Fail least of all. In these cases, the conference is largely an annual social event where the party faithful meet one another. The majority of people attending the conference are concerned only with socializing and reliving past events; it is a crucial ceremony which maintains the sense of moral fellowship. It lasts about two or three days, with social events each night and a speech by the party leader (preceded and followed by a standing ovation). Some serious politics also takes place, as politicians, political aspirants, and local organizers exchange notes on party organization and tactics, and make informal alliances. Some will be working hard to obtain the support of influential politicians who will act as patrons, perhaps by helping them obtain a local nomination.

There are important differences in political organization in rural versus urban constituencies. Polling stations are allocated on the basis of geography and population to make sure that all voters have relatively easy access to a local station. In rural areas, this means that there must be polling stations spread throughout the countryside, otherwise voters would have to travel too far to vote. Each polling station will have be covered on election day, but the rural ones have a smaller catchment area and so more branches are required to cover them. In 1979, Fianna Fail had about 50-150 branches per rural constituency, and 20-30 branches per city constituency (Chubb 1982:112).

There is generally greater social involvement in politics in a rural setting: one Fianna Fail activist estimated that a rural cumain (branch) would have 100 members to the urban branch's 15, with the same catchment area (in terms of voting population). However, as another activist added, that 100 members would probably include entire families, where the 15 urban members would have left their families at home. In a rural area, there would be an individual known to be "the Fianna Fail [or Fine Gael] man"; he might be a pub owner, insurance salesman, social welfare officer, or some other local figure. Such notables will see, in the normal course of their work, the party members in the area. Formal branch meetings may not be necessary and, according to one activist, even the annual general meetings might be dispensed with.

In the rural community, an activist is prominent in several social and economic domains simultaneously. In effect, politics in rural areas remains integrated into the social and economic fabric of the community. In urban areas, politics is becoming separate. Urban activists might not see one another in the normal course of community life, and so formal branch meetings are necessary to sort out problems and discuss tactics. Party activists in Dublin emphasized again and again how isolated they are from the community, as contrasted with their rural counterparts. It is possible for an influential activist to be unknown outside of local party meetings. A person prominent in the party organization might have little standing or reputation in the community at large, and if, through manipulation of party branches, he got a nomination, he would receive few votes. It would be unlikely that such a person would receive a nomination in a rural constituency, as all other activists would be well aware of each person's public profile. Only in urban politics is it possible for party activists to be "out of touch" with the community. By and large, only elected politicians, or those with such ambitions, have a public profile.

This urban/rural variation in party organization matches the variation in councillor/voter ratios. Rural areas have more politicians and more political activists per head of population; overall, rural political activity is more firmly embedded in the community. This has obvious consequences for clientelism, as it is far easier to create personal networks of support in a rural area. In urban areas, the number of voters whose support must be maintained is higher and the number of political activists who can serve as intermediaries is lower. A politician at once has fewer rivals, as they find it difficult to create a rival power base, but also has more difficulty penetrating the constituency, as there are fewer kinship, and social, networks whose loyalty he can tap.

Party Politics

Although the relationship of party supporter to party is corporate and "tribal" in character, there are still transactional exchanges, especially amongst political activists. The Irish electoral system of PR-STV differs from other electoral systems in two ways. In some countries (e.g., the United States and Great Britain), the voter casts one vote, and the candidate with the largest number of voters (not necessarily, however, a majority of votes cast) is elected. Instead of just voting for one individual (or one party), the Irish voter rank orders individual preferences, even amongst different candidates from the same party. If his first choice does not obtain sufficient votes to be elected, then his vote will be transfered to his second choice. Secondly, there are a number of seats to be filled in each constituency; rather than only one seat per electoral area, there may be from three to five seats. Such a system was designed to overcome the inbuilt bias against small parties present in other electoral systems.12 Under the Irish system, in theory, marginal parties should be able to achieve political representation, while, in other electoral systems, a small party cannot obtain a large enough following in individual constituencies to obtain seats. In practice, however, the Irish party system is dominated by large parties, and small parties are unable to break into the system.

The effect of PR-STV on the rules of political competition has been profound, and not necessarily beneficial. Voters are able to simultaneously demonstrate corporate loyalty to their party and engage in transactional exchanges with individual politicians. Voters decide amongst several individual politicians within one party, without diminishing their party allegiance. In elections using a list system, it is the party which decides how electoral preferences will be allocated amongst competing party politicians. A politician who controls the party structure is confident of re-election; only a significant electoral swing against his party could threaten his position. In Ireland, control over the party structure provides only marginal assurance of re-election. It is the voters who decide which party candidate will receive the highest preferences. Voters can thus engage in transactional exchanges with individual politicians knowing that any politician they choose will still remain loyal to the party. It is a measure of the strength of party loyalty that the two main parties continue to exist, despite an electoral system designed to facilitate factionalism. In fact, PR-STV does encourage factionalism, but it is intra-party factionalism within large parties, rather than inter-party factionalism amongst numerous small parties.

Constituency Service

Since a politician's main challenge comes from others in his own party, neither party allegiance nor party policy can be used to ensure an individual politician's electoral success (except for marginal seats). Against members of the same party, politicians must compete using non-party resources. Politicians must attract support, using whatever resources they have available, offering whatever the voters want (or whatever they can convince the voters that the voters want). The generally accepted medium through which party politicians compete for votes is "personal service". As Bax (1975:12) commented, politicians compete by "building up a greater reputation as a worker for the electorate". This is the dominant image of Irish politics: the political broker who intervenes on behalf of constituents to help them obtain government benefits, and who, in return, is rewarded by people's votes.

There is probably no more powerful or central image in Irish politics than the "parish-pump" politician (e.g., Keane, J., 1967). Many argue that electoral contests are decided on the basis of personal contacts and claims of influence. As one journalist commented, with regard to Fianna Fail especially,

the quid pro quo is clear, almost stark. Fianna Fail will look after the punter and the punter will look after Fianna Fail at election time. Dole payments, grants, planning permission will be reciprocated with first preferences on election day. (Irish Times, 18 July 1976)

Politicians claim influence over government services, and so make voters indebted to them.

To some extent, this emphasis of personal assistance may be an unforseen consequence of the electoral system. Voters everywhere would like politicians to look after their individual interests (Mezey 1976); Ireland's electoral system merely gives voters the power to force politicians to fulfill that desire. The crucial point is that voters" decisions to support a particular politician takes place within the context of strong party loyalties. If the provision of individual benefits dominates the electoral contest, it is only because politicians and voters take party loyalty for granted. Since the electoral system does not require that voters chose between personalism and party loyalty, it is difficult to deduce, from electoral data, how important "personalism" is. Politicians have sometimes discovered, too late, that their electoral support depended on the umbrella of voter party loyalty. In the early 1970's, a number of politicians left Fianna Fail due to conflict over party policy regarding Northern Ireland, and contested future elections as Independents or as members of newly founded nationalist parties. Most of the politicians were quickly rejected by the voters.13 Individual appeals to voters are important, but largely within the context of appealing to loyal party voters.

PR-STV increases politician's electoral vulnerability. They must fulfill voter expectations in order to maintain their personal share of the party vote. If the voters want brokerage, then the politician must try to deliver. If he does not deliver, he will not be re-elected. The electoral and party system forces politicians to provide constituency services which the politicians might not otherwise provide; it is in the politician's interest to provide that service at the least cost to himself. The actual efficacy of politicians' interventions is a side issue; the politician's goal is simply that people prefer him over his party rivals.

Intra-Constituency Rivalries

The ability of voters to demonstrate their support for a party and yet still choose amongst various politicians means that an individual politician's rivals come from his own party rather than from any opposition parties. Given the high level of party commitment by voters, it also means that fellow politicians are competing for a finite number of votes -- the votes of loyal party supporters. This is a true "zero-sum game"; if one politician gets votes, then, by definition, his fellow party candidates must get less.

It is not surprising that factional conflict is endemic in local party politics, and it usually surfaces during elections. Although all candidates are supposed to work together to increase the party vote as a whole, candidates often work independently to increase their own vote (inevitably to the detriment of the rivals' party vote). The most serious violation of campaign rules is to ask for a "personal" vote for yourself, rather than asking people to vote for the party candidates, in whatever order of preferences they want to. However, everyone knows that such personal campaigning goes on, and one can only try to keep the rivalry in check as much as possible.14

Politicians do not simply try to increase their own vote; often they actually try to take voters away from party rivals. The strategies used to win votes away vary. A time honored strategy is for Mr. Y to spread the rumor that Mr. X has a safe seat, while Mr. Y is in real danger of losing his seat. In order to secure Mr. Y's seat, everyone will give Mr. Y their first preference vote, and Mr. X may lose his so-called safe seat. Rumors are also spread to discredit rival candidates. In a recent election, anonymous letters were put into houses, accusing a candidate of forcing residents to accept "itinerants" in the area.15 This had been a very sensitive and emotional issue in previous months, and the letter was an attempt to smear a local candidate. Though the letter was unsigned, it later transpired that a rival party candidate was responsible.

The most extreme example of party conflict was during a by-election campaign. By-elections provide useful publicity for aspiring politicians; each party puts forward one candidate, since only one seat is vacant, and all the party's publicity is focused on the one candidate. Their high public profile often increases the particular candidate's vote in future elections, to the dismay of party rivals. In this case, Mr. F (a fellow party member) was a rival of the party's candidate (Mr. L). Mr. F kept Mr. O, an opposition party candidate, informed of all of Mr. L's movements during the campaign. In this way, Mr. O could counter Mr. L's activities. From Mr. F's perspective, it was better that the seat be lost to another party than that a party rival should obtain a seat.

Although control over party branches offers the politician only limited protection from the electorate, it offers some insurance. Candidates for election are chosen by party branches, with each branch having equal votes. The best protection against a rival who might obtain more first preference votes is to deny him the nomination in the first place; local politicians with a strong hold on their area make sure that only weak candidates are nominated alongside them. To safeguard one's position, one must be able to control enough branches to control nominations. If a rival candidate is well known and also from the same community, he may get more first preference votes and actually supplant the politician. There is always the danger that voters may give higher preferences to someone else, and even well established politicians can find their support shifting to relative newcomers. In one Dublin constituency, an established politician supported a relative unknown to prevent a rival from being nominated. The unknown managed to get elected, and the established politician lost his seat and has never recovered his power.

Politicians maneuver to keep control of the local party structure and keep out potential rivals. The conflict within the local party arena goes on all the time and is the reason why politicians are always attending party branch meetings; they want to keep things under control. The basic question of constituency politics is "whose man are you?" and it is impossible not to be somebody's man. There is no way to avoid local factional conflicts; one must be aligned to someone. Local branch politics do not permit a person to be neutral; if he tried to be, he would simply be trusted by no one.

Constituency meetings are complex; beneath the surface of conviviality and commitment to party ideals, there exist plots and counter-plots. Participants spend most of their time trying to deduce the significance of every minor event: does it imply that someone's support was shifting? will that action somehow enhance councillor "L's" position? For example, at one meeting, the constituency secretary placed a local councillor in the front row of the meeting, while a local TD and also a visiting party dignitary (a TD from another constituency) were at the table facing the audience. This was an exception to the normal practice of seating all elected politicians at the head table. The TD thus received more public attention than the councillor. The councillor felt he could not make a fuss, as this would appear mean-minded, but he was annoyed and also worried: had the secretary done this deliberately (thus aligning himself with the TD whose position was increasingly threatened by the councillor)? Since no direct question could be asked to settle the matter, the councillor could only resolve to not let himself lose the limelight again and also watch the secretary more closely in the future.

All this conflict takes place beneath the surface; many of those attending such meetings would accept the superficial interpretation of harmony and shared goals. Indeed, such shared goals are often used as a weapon in party rivalries. In one case, an aspiring activist tried to obtain a nomination and supplant the established councillor. Although the aspirant had more votes, the established councillor was able to paint a convincing picture of factionalism and divided loyalties. For the sake of party unity, he said, they should ask the national executive to permit both to run as candidates. If the aspirant had fought this, he would have seemed concerned only with personal ambition (in contrast with the other's concern for the party). He had no choice but to agree; the established politician was easily able to use his national contacts to influence the national executive. They decided to permit only one candidate, which was naturally the established politician himself.

Politicians divide up their constituency into individual territories, and, through manipulation of party branches, prevent local rivals from being nominated (Sacks 1976:164-170; Carty 1981:117-134). A politician's major concern is to monopolize the party vote in his local area and ensure that candidates come from some other part of the constituency. He must also make sure his area is not encroached upon, and, if possible, expand his sphere of operations. The wider the area in which he is active, the greater the share of the party vote he will obtain.

Well established politicians manipulate the party structure to prevent strong near-by candidates from getting nominated. The most effective way to deal with a rival is to stop him from being nominated at all. Politicians agreed that they had far more difficulty getting nominated by the local party than they had getting elected by the community. In many cases, it took years of continual effort to break the stranglehold which a rival had over the party branches. If there are fifteen branches in a constituency, politicians will often be able to say that five of them are Deputy Smyth's, three of them are Senator Byrne's, three are Councillor Malone's, and three are uncommitted. Politicians must obtain the support of local branches and also make alliances with other politicians to obtain the support of their branches. A politician can only gain support at the expense of another rival politician, so suspicion is always rife that any action has the covert aim of consolidating one's support among branches or undercutting a rival's support.

Politicians control branches in three ways. The most common method is to woo existing members and so create personal links with existing party activists. For this reason, politicians are always attentive to branch members's problems and complaints. Politicians are always available to assist party members with their individual problems. One Dublin TD said that he spent over one year cementing the support of the six branches in his local area; he did this by flattering individuals, appealing to their interests, following up any of their complaints, and, basically, putting himself at their disposal. Even if he did not make them personally loyal, he at least made them sympathetic.

In addition, politicians will recruit their own friends. By introducing personally loyal people in branches, the politician can eventually take over the branch, or at least the important positions within the branch. Through simple endurance, the politician's friends can outlast those whose commitment is less strong and eventually the branch will simply become the politician's. Although each branch covers a specific electoral area, branch members do not have to be living in that specific area. In one case, three members of the same family belonged to three different branches; there was no reason to waste loyal support by concentrating them all in one branch! It is common to find the sister or brother-in-law of a TD as head of a local branch or secretary of the constituency organization. Such overt control is a certain sign of personal strength. In the Labour Party, new members have to be accepted by the branch; but in Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, new members cannot be rejected. This has some obvious advantages; a prominent Fianna Fail politician re-established control of a rebel branch by overwhelming the branch with new members personally loyal to him.

A third strategy would be to create new branches. One can upset the existing balance of power by adding new branches, each with its own votes at nominating conventions. Branches are allocated specific geographic territories, so there is justification for a new branch only in rapidly growing areas. In many parts of County Dublin, rapid population growth has created a need for branches, but the approval for such branches is always slow to be given. Often, the new branch will be created by splitting an existing branch whose territory is now too large. This is an opportunity for one faction to take control of a new branch, and rivals may try to prevent it. The creation of a new branch in the rapidly growing western suburbs of Dublin was held up for years simply because the local TD knew that the newly created branch was going to be composed of people loyal to someone else. He had sufficient support at the national level to delay approval.

In effect, politicians seek to transform party supporters into personal supporters, and leave the formal party structure a hollow shell. The crucial figures are those branch delegates; they elect constituency officers and nominate local and general election candidates. One doesn't have to take over an entire branch if one can simply convert or supplant the prominent branch figures who are active in constituency politics. In constituencies dominated by a strong politician, all important local positions are held by the politician's friends. There is no danger that branch activists might defect to the other side; the branch, to all intents and purposes, ceases to exist. Such branches are known as "paper" branches because they only exist on paper, to maintain appearances for party headquarters. The branches function only during elections, to nominate whoever the politician wants.

Such personal followings are not in the best interests of the national party. Those concerned with the party as a whole rightly view this as subversion; party support is replaced by personal support. The entire party machine becomes dependent on one person; if he dies or leaves politics, the party has no local organization left. In one Dublin constituency, the Labour Party TD slowly took over all the branches and discouraged outsiders from joining the party. He used the Labour Party rule that new members must be approved by the existing branch to reject all potential branch members. He had a large vote in every election, but it was a personal one and not based on the votes of party supporters. Once he was gone, there was no actual local structure remaining: it was all on paper. A new Labour candidate had to start from scratch to develop the manpower necessary to canvass voters in an election.

A local politician is not concerned with increasing the number of party seats in a constituency, since other office holders are merely threats. The party vote might actually slip, because the TD is only working to get enough votes for himself. The party, on the other hand, needs as many seats as possible, in order to have a majority in the Dail. Sometimes, the national party organization attempts to purge a local constituency of paper branches. Such moves are usually met with open or covert resistance from local political figures. In 1983, for example, Fianna Fail attempted to reorganize an inner city constituency (Dublin South Central), in order to increase its share of votes at election time. Party headquarters wanted to reduce the 39 existing branches to 19; the move was resisted by elected politicians and 30 of the existing branches (many of which were either "paper" branches or controlled by personal friends of elected politicians). The politicians rightly regard the move as a threat to their power base, and an attempt to open up the constituency to newcomers.

If the national organization succeeds in undermining a local fiefdom, conflict between party rivals is intensified. Surprisingly, the party as a whole actually benefits from intra-constituency rivalries. As long as the rivalries stay within bounds (which they often don't), the competition will help maximize the party vote. Each candidate will try to obtain as many votes as possible from his own area; if not sufficient for election, the votes will then transfer to help elect a fellow party politician. Every possible party vote will be obtained by individuals seeking to maximize their advantage vis-a-vis party rivals; the party thus harnesses individual ambition for party benefit. The conflict between the goals of the party and the local politician is inevitable. The unfortunate by-product is factionalism, as one politician tries to become dominant; the party tries to contain such conflict as much as possible, while not suppressing it altogether.

One way to maximize the party vote (thus enhancing one's position within the party) while not assisting rivals is to nominate a trusted assistant as a running mate. Once a politician is elected, the surplus votes transfer to the voters' second choices. A popular politician can get enough votes to elect himself and, on the strength of his surplus votes, also bring in someone else. The politician who manages to get himself and his "henchman" elected has thus demonstrated his electoral support. Politicians measure their strength by their vote. The number of votes needed for election is the quota, and is determined by the number of valid votes divided by the number of seats plus one. Thus, in a three seat constituency with 20,000 valid votes, the quota would be 20,000 divided by four (three plus one): 5,000 votes. The strength of the politician is measured by the number of votes relative to the quota for his constituency. If the politician in the three seat constituency obtained 8,000 votes, he would have 3,000 over the quota (which could then transfer to help elect someone else). His electoral support would be 1.6 of a quota (8,000 divided by 5,000). Usually, the most powerful politicians have a strong local base. In the 1977 election, the top three vote getters were Jack Lynch (2.34 quotas), Charles Haughey (1.47 quotas), and Liam Cosgrave (1.45 quotas) (Nealon 1977:133). It is no accident that one was leader of Fianna Fail, another was leader of Fine Gael, and the third was soon to become leader of Fianna Fail.

Party Clientelism

Alliances and clientelist exchanges exist above the local party organization. Senior politicians are concerned with potential threats and recruiting allies and clients, as well. Senior members of the party often control patronage positions which can be used to buttress a local politician's position. In exchange, a local politician will become the "client" of a more senior figure, helping him in his conflicts with other senior figures.

A senior politician's patronage can help in numerous ways. If the local client is only a councillor, he can be helped in becoming a Senator, a position which offers privileges that often make it a stepping stone to a Dail seat. He can also be helped to become a member of the national executive, which would give him access to national politicians and enable him to by-pass local figures trying to block him. Such contacts and patronage have enabled aspirants to be "imposed" on the ticket, and so by-pass a local figure who controls the party branches. If the client is a TD, he can be made a Minister of State or, if the party is out of government, an opposition spokesman. Such positions provide publicity and prestige, which help solidify local support. To become someone's client has the disadvantage of becoming the enemy of the patron's enemy; if the patron loses, the client might find his career blocked.

The client's support can be useful in party rivalries. If the client is a TD, his vote in the parliamentary party would be useful. The most crucial vote is the vote for party leader, but there are often other votes, when one person is trying to gain a tactical advantage over the other. Even if the client is not a TD, then his vote as a Senator, or member of the national executive, or councillor, or even constituency secretary can still be useful. Often, the senior politician helps a client simply to undercut a local TD or councillor who is allied to some other senior politician. An Irish political party is a pyramid of patron-client links and quite reminiscent of the transactional maneuvers described by Bailey (1969) and Barth (1965). At each level (branch, constituency, national), individual politicians compete with others on the same level, use the support of their clients in that competition, and are, therefore, the clients of higher level patrons.

Party politics is dominated by clientelist exchanges, and politicians must secure the personal support of loyal party voters. Party politics seems similar in both rural and urban settings; research in Dublin showed the same factional conflict and patron-client exchanges which have been described in rural studies (e.g., Bax 1976; Carty 1981; Sacks 1976). However, important differences emerge between urban and rural politics in the way politicians relate to voters. In rural Ireland, politics remains closely integrated into the community, whereas in urban politics, the party is not well integrated into the community. Party activist and party supporter are little different in rural communities, but urban party politics does not overlap urban community politics as completely; the two constitute distinct arenas. Therefore the relationship between politicians and voters must be investigated as a separate issue from the relationship between politicians and activists. In addition, the relationship between the party as a whole and the community must be investigated.

This chapter shows that politicians must create personal links with voters as much as with activists, but party organization alone does not indicate the nature of those links. One must move out of the party arena, and look once more at the broader society to see what demands are made on politicians by voters. Determining the "currency" of clientelist exchange is a prerequisite to then determining the "rate of exchange".


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