Politics and Media

The Republic of Ireland is constituted as a parliamentary democracy, built around a bi-cameral parliament, the directly-elected Dail and the Seanad (Senate) which is drawn from direct political appointments and limited franchises such as university graduates. It has a written constitution dating from 1937 (but amended on numerous subsequent occasions). The nominal Head of State is the President but his/her functions are largely (though not entirely) ceremonial and the de facto head of state is the leader of the government, the Taoiseach (literally “leader” or “chief”).

Political Affiliations - A thing of the Past

Though there is no overt prohibition on politicians or political parties owning or controlling media outlets this has not been a feature of Irish media in the 20th century. This is in stark contrast to the 19th century when newspapers – local or national - were primarily defined by their political affiliation falling broadly in two camps: Unionist or Nationalist. The Irish Times was established as a moderate pro-independence (or “Home Rule”) paper in 1859 (although its stance shifted towards supporting the Union with Britain after it was acquired by the Arnott Family in 1873). The first incarnation of the Irish Independent was explicitly created in 1896 to support Charles Stewart Parnell’s position as the leader of the pro-independence Irish Parliamentary Party, after elements of his party disapproved of his relationship with a married woman. However, the re-launched version of the Irish Independent adopted a far less overt political stance (though it remained pro-Home Rule), seeking to appeal to a wider audience by embracing a more accessible/populist editorial outlook. Virtually every national paper (including the Irish Times) supported the decision of Sinn Féin, the political party which superseded the Irish Parliamentary Party in the 1910s, to sign a treaty with Great Britain in 1921 to create an independent Irish Free State. The papers maintained that position even after a Civil War broke out between those factions of Sinn Féin which did and did not support the Treaty . (Indeed for most of the 20th century the Irish Independent was understood to have maintained a broadly supportive attitude towards Cumann na nGaedhael, the party which emerged from the pro-Treaty wing of the Sinn Féin Party after the Civil War and its successor, the Fine Gael party.)

The perception that the Irish print media was broadly pro-Treaty did prompt the establishment of an overt party press, however. The Irish Press Group was established in 1931 by Fianna Fail leader Eamon de Valera to give expression to his party’s political outlook. Though not actually owned by the Fianna Fail (the de Valera family remained controlling shareholders throughout the group’s history), it nonetheless actively and overtly supported the party, especially in its early decades. The paper also proved commercially successful and the Group’s three titles – the Irish Press, the Sunday Press and the Evening Press – cumulatively constituted the largest circulation of any Irish newspaper group in the middle years of the 20th century. However, the papers’ circulation began to rapidly decline in the 1980s and despite sustained efforts to prop it up (including an attempted acquisition by the rival Independent News and Media group), the Group closed for good in 1995. This brought to an end the era of direct relationships between large circulation media outlets and political parties.

Modern Days Independence

Furthermore, except in very exceptional circumstances there has been little in the way of even indirect state influence on commercial media in Ireland. The specific circumstances of the second world war saw the state introduce a regime of print censorship via the 1939 Emergency Powers Act which was designed to ensure that Irish neutrality was not inadvertently undermined by newspaper editorials. However, this did not continue once conditions returned to normal in 1945. State-funded press subsidies have not been a feature of the Irish media ecology so that particular means of influence has never existed. There is a licence fee-funded broadcast production support fund known as the Sound and Vision Scheme which has been available to all broadcasters on the island of Ireland since 2002 and which supports public service content production. However, the scheme is administered by the Media Commission and there is no obvious mechanism by which any government administration might seek to use it to influence media content.

The fact that the Public Service Media, RTÉ is state-owned has been used as a basis for asserting that it is a pro-government outlet. The evidence for this is not compelling. Responsibility for the day-to-day operation of RTÉ resides with a Board appointed by the Minister for Communications and there is no longer any mechanism by which the state might directly instruct the broadcaster to include or exclude any particular forms of content. Although the state sets the price of the broadcast licence fee which provides the public element of RTE’s funding, the revenues raised are determined by the number of citizens who decide to pay the licence fee. In any case, for most of its existence since 1960, the majority of RTÉ funding has come from commercial sources, not public ones.  At most, it might be argued that the broadcaster tends towards a political middle ground which treats anything outside a relatively narrow centrist range of political opinion as “radical”. Between 1926 and 1961 when RTÉ’s predecessors (“2RN” and “Radio Eireann”) were directly run by civil servants, it was essentially apolitical to the extent of having virtually no political/current affairs content at all. This did alter after the 1960 Broadcasting Act introduced an arms length distance between state control and the day-to-day operation of the broadcaster. As the station began to exercise its new found liberty to actively cover politics, it generated tensions within a political class unused to scrutiny from “their own” broadcaster. This led to a number of clashes, culminating in the wholesale replacement of the RTÉ authority in 1972 by a Fianna Fáil administration. Although virtually every political party has at some stage argued that RTÉ has been either biassed against it or that it favours a rival party, it appeared that some members of Fianna Fáil in particular nursed a grievance with regard to the broadcaster through the 1980s and 1990s. Thus the manner in which commercial broadcasting was introduced in the late 1980s and early 1990s seemed motivated in part by a desire to bring the PSM to heel. This found long-term expression in a reluctance on the part of all parties to approve long-term increases in public funding support (through a broadcast licence fee) for the station. The licence fee remained at the same level £IR62 between 1986 and 1996 and, as of 2023 has not been increased since 2008.

> More on the Irish Political System

Irish politics might broadly be described as centrist: to date, far-left and far-right political groupings have not enjoyed any significant electoral success. Two parties have dominated Irish politics since the foundation of the state: Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. Both parties emerged from a split in the dominant pre-independence Irish nationalist party, Sinn Fein. When the Anglo-Irish Treaty was voted on by the Dáil in January 1922, those who voted against its passage subsequently withdrew from the Dáil and a year long civil war ensued. Those members of the Dáil who supported the Treaty re-constituted themselves as Cumann na nGaedheal and from 1933 as Fine Gael (literally “Tribe of the Gaels”). Those who voted against the Treaty formed the kernel of another party, Fianna Fail, established in 1926. Though initially refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Irish Free State and refusing to take their seats in the Dáil, Fianna Fail reversed this stance after the 1927 election and from 1932 until 2011, the party was consistently the largest in the Dáil.

The dominance of two parties primarily distinguished by their attitude towards a century-old peace treaty has helped ensure that Irish politics has not been aligned along the left-right continuum which predominates in many European countries. (Both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael may be characterised as broadly centre-right.) Left-leaning parties have been a feature of Irish politics since the foundation of the state: the Labour Party (founded in 1912 as the political wing of the Irish Trades Union Congress) secured 21.4% of the first preference vote in the first post-independence election in 1922 (still its largest ever vote share) but struggled throughout the 20th century to achieve the representation enjoyed by Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. Until the 1980s, the latter two parties routinely shared more than 80% of first preference votes in general elections.

There has, however, been a dramatic realignment of Irish politics since the 2008 financial crash. At the 2011 election, Fianna Fail lost 51 of the 71 seats it had held. Roughly half of these were picked up by Fine Gael but the rest went to Labour and a number of left-leaning independents. That shift to the left has continued since. As of the 2022 election the combined vote of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael had fallen to 43% and the largest vote share was secured by Sinn Féin, a descendent of the political grouping left behind by 1922 Treaty split. Though primarily defined by its Republican identity (identifying the re-unification of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as a long term policy goal), Sinn Féin is broadly socialist in its orientation. Taking Sinn Fein’s support along with that of Labour, the Social Democrats and People Before Profit (as well as a handful of independent Teachaí Dála (members of the parliament)), one can point to the presence of a substantial left-leaning minority (35% - 40%) within the Irish parliament (though not in government) since the 2022 election.

The final element of mainstream Irish politics is the Green Party. Founded in 1981, it remained peripheral until 2007 when its six members of parliament became part of a coalition government under Fianna Fail. It lost all of its seats in the subsequent 2011 election but has gradually re-emerged since, securing 12 seats in 2020 (its best result ever) and entering another coalition government in 2020 with Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.

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