Embracing the trappings of western democracy

Roy Johnston reviews Explaining Irish Democracy by Bill Kissane, University College Dublin Press, £16.99 pbk

THIS BOOK originated as a PhD thesis in the department of government in the London School of Economics, and is a creditable contribution to the growing library in support of the academic Irish studies community.

It attempts to explain, using international comparisons with other states which emerged after the first world war, as well an internal Irish and British-based analysis, why it was that despite the trauma of the civil war Irish democracy managed to assert itself, to the extent that transfer of power to the civil war losers took place peacefully in 1932.

Most comparable European post-war small nations fared less well. “As the only successor state to have remained continuously democratic since independence, the Irish case should stand as a useful test for theories of democratic survival and breakdown in the inter-war period. Curiously however it usually does not feature at all in comparative analyses... and is generally ignored in... democratic theory.”

The author then goes in some depth into the various European responses to the inter-war crises and concludes that the Irish survived their local version democratically by disarming the left-wing challenge with reformist initiatives.

Fianna Fáil in the 1930s managed to project a decidedly socialist aura, while remaining basically under bourgeois leadership.

Analysing the roots of this phenomenon, in a subsequent chapter he goes into the details of the 1922 election, which Sinn Féin contested nominally as a united party, despite the underlying treaty split.

There were heavy losses among anti-treaty candidates (whose orientation would of course have been known to their electorates), mostly to the Labour Party -- a signal which de Valera absorbed, and which fuelled the orientation of the emergent Fianna Fáil during the following decade.

The Labour-Fianna-Fáil convergence in the 1930s reflected itself in the voting transfers; indeed Kissane’s analyses of transfers, their role, and the information to be gained from them, should be an object-lesson to those in Britain seeking to reform their primitive electoral system.

There is much depth in this book; it is difficult to do it justice in a short review. I found the theoretical bases used in the analyses somewhat unsatisfactory, perhaps because, being primarily rooted in the European experience, they are ill-adapted to the complexities of the Irish class structure.

The book will however serve a useful purpose in that it will suggest further areas of research, into areas such as the origins of the civil war, and the role of the British in that context.

There is also work to be done on the role of local government in the development of the type of local élite leadership, and the gombeen-capitalist culture rooted in land-speculation, which subsequently became typical of the Fianna Fáil Party.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2002-10-02 16:04:24.
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