Past not an entirely different country? A look back at the 1985 Local Elections

Adrian Kavanagh, 22nd November 2013

With little more than half a year until the 2014 Local Elections, I thought it would be useful to look back at a previous local elections contest that took place in what may well prove to be largely similar circumstances to the context of next year’s contest, namely the 1985 City and County Council elections.

These elections took place roughly two and half after the preceding general election of November 1982. This election had seen a Fine Gael-Labour government being elected to power, with Fine Gael achieving the party’s highest ever vote share (39.2%) in its history and the also the largest ever number of Dail seats (70) won by the party, with the notable exception of the 2011 contest. In taking over the reins of power during the bleak recessionary period of the 1980s, the two parties had seen their support bases being eroded and the two parties’ performances would fall well short of what they had both achieved at the previous local elections contest in 1979. With 29.8% of the vote, the Fine Gael vote was well down on its November 1982 General Election support level and on its 34.9%  vote share at the 1979 Local Elections. Labour won just 7.7% of the (valid) votes cast at the 1985 elections, this being down on  9.4% vote level won at the November 1982 General Election and even significantly lower than the 11.8% of the vote won by that party at the 1979 City and County Council elections. What could be viewed as being worrying for both parties is the fact that this was not simply a mid-term dip in support levels for government parties, as would be expected based on the second-order election model, but a prelude to an even more significant loss of support by both parties at the following general election in February 1987 – in this case, the most significant losses (especially in terms of seats) would be experienced by Fine Gael.

Figure 1: Fine Gael support (%) by county at the 1985 Local Election

Figure 1: Fine Gael support (%) by county at the 1985 Local Election

The Fine Gael geography of support in these elections would prefigure the party support trends over the following decades in which the party would fare notably better in rural Ireland than in the more urban areas and in which the North-West (excluding Donegal) and South-West regions would emerge as the party’s strongest pockets of support. This elections sparked a notable decline in the party’s Dublin support in particular, with Fine Gael support falling from a high of 41.1% in that region at the November 1982 General Election to a much lower 24.5% level in that region at the 1985 elections. While the party would fare marginally better in terms of vote share at the following local elections, further poor performances in the Capital would lie ahead of Fine Gael over the following decades, but particularly at the general elections of 1992 and 2002, by which time the party had lost some of its natural support base in Dublin to the Progressive Democrats and the Green Party.

Figure 2: Labour Party support (%) by county at the 1985 Local Elections

Figure 2: Labour Party support (%) by county at the 1985 Local Elections

The geography of Labour Party support at these local elections effective mirrored the traditional pattern of party support in which it has tended to concentrated to the south and east of a line drawn between Dundalk and Limerick City.  This very much proved to be the case in 1985, with the party only winning two seats (one in Sligo Town and one in Galway City) in the Connacht-Ulster region at this contest. What is particularly striking about the 1985 context, however, for Labour was the party’s relative weakness in the Dublin region. This marked the culmination of an ongoing process of declining Labour support in Dublin from the high level (28.3%) won at the 1969 General Election. At the 1985 elections, Labour only took 10.3% of the votes cast in the Dublin region and fared even worse in the Dublin City area (or Dublin County Borough area, as it was then referred to) – here the party won just 9.0% of the vote and took just two out of the 52 seats seats being contested in that local authority area. All in all, the party’s most reliable source of support and local authority seats in this contest (as was also the case in most elections in the 1980s) proved to be the Munster and the rest of Leinster regions. This stands in marked contrast to Labour Party support trends in the 2000s (and especially following the amalgamation  with Democratic Left) in which Dublin has emerged as the party’s most important support base with the relative importance of the rest of Leinster and Munster regions declining accordingly.

Figure 3: Workers Party (%) support at the 1985 Local Elections

Figure 3: Workers Party (%) support at the 1985 Local Elections

Labour’s declining fortunes – particularly in Dublin – at the 1985 contest were in part due to a growing challenge from the left of the political spectrum, namely the growing support levels for the Workers Party during the period. (Sinn Fein candidates – though not officially noted as such – would win over 40,000 votes and 9 seats at these elections.) In 1985 this party’s support base largely mirrored the Labour pattern of support, but with some interesting exceptions – including a strong electoral performance in the Glenties electoral area in Donegal – and indeed the party would outpoll Labour in the Dublin City area at these contests (and win six seats there, as opposed to Labour’s two).

Figure 4: Fianna Fail support (%) by county at the 1985 Local Elections

Figure 4: Fianna Fail support (%) by county at the 1985 Local Elections

Fianna Fail entered this election in the relatively rare position of being an Opposition party, with the party’s last period in office prior to this having been a controversial and error-strewn one (the “GUBU” government). This election came at the end of a decades long period, culminating from the late 1950s onwards,  in which most of the support and seats at elections tended to fall into the hands of the three largest parties in the state (or even the two largest parties) with Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, between them, accounting for 145 of the 166 Dail seats after the November 1982 contest and with only five of the seats being taken by candidates from parties/groupings other than Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour. Given that, in June 1985 the party was, despite retaining a certain degree of “toxicity” in some circles that mainly centered around the party leader, well placed to be the main beneficiary of the declining government fortunes – even though its share of the vote would be ultimately only marginally higher than in November 1982.  Of course, political events some months later would notably change the particular landscape. The party, as with elections in the Haughey and Reynolds eras, would fare decidedly better in 1985 in the more rural constituencies, whereas (with the exception of Ballyfermot and the Dublin Inner City wards) it tended to fare better in the more working class constituencies within the Dublin region. Despite its relative levels of weakness in certain areas (and as the classic catch-all party, it was still often the strongest party in most of its weaker areas) Fianna Fail came very close to winning over half of the seats being contested in the City and County Council elections – winning 434 of the 883 seats being contested with a 45.5% share of the vote.

Some months after these elections, a notable change to this political landscape took place that would erode the out and out dominance of the “Two and a half party” system of the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s. This, of course, was the founding of the Progressive Democrats in December 1985, whose founding members would be drawn from the two main parties of Fine Gael and especially Fianna Fail. (Indeed a number of people who would be founder members of this party some months later would contest these electiosn for their “old” parties – including Michael Keating (North Inner City),  Mary Harney (Clondalkin), Pearse Wyse (Cork (City) South Central) and Peadar Clohessy (Castleconnell)). This would offer an alternative to the right of the political spectrum to Fianna Fail and especially Fine Gael and would play a large role in the latter party’s disappointing electoral fortunes over the next two decades. The emergence of the Progressive Democrats, the strong showings by various independent politicians, the strength of the Workers Party/Democratic Left in the 1980s and 1990s and the arrival of the Greens and Sinn Fein as significant political forces over the following decades would effectively end the out and out dominance of the “Two and a half party” system. At the outset, Fianna Fail would react better to the changing political landscape and the party would find itself in government for most of the period up until the 2011 General Election.

Figure 5: Female candidates (%) by county at the 1985 Local Elections

Figure 5: Female candidates (%) by county at the 1985 Local Elections

One final point to briefly review, given the focus on the introduction of gender quotas at the next general election, is the level of female electoral participation associated with these elections. The Fitzgerald-lead Fine Gael in the early 1980s and the Spring-Tide election of 1992 would see some improvement in the levels of female candidacies at elections during the 1980s and early 1990s – indeed there has been no further marked improvement in such rates since the 1992 General Election. Taking place during this period, the 1985 local Elections marked some degree of an improvement in terms of female electoral participation relative to earlier such contests, but it was also one in which the levels of female candidacies and female electoral successes remained decidedly low. Females only accounted for 10.9% of all candidates at these elections and won only 73 (8.3%) out of the 883 City and County Council seats being contested. There was a notable geography to the levels of female candidatures and success at these elections, as Figure 5 shows, with females tending to fare better in the more urban and eastern local authority areas.

So to conclude, what parallels can be drawn from the 1985 contests with a view to next year’s local election contests. Well there is the context of a resurgent Fianna Fail support base in the wake of a traumatic and divisive electoral loss, but albeit with the coda that present day support levels are by no means standing at the same degree that party support levels stood at in the mid-1980s. There is also the context of Fine Gael being relatively insulated from serious levels of support loss by the lack of an alternative political force on the right of the political spectrum – an advantage that the party would enjoy only for another few months however. The present day Fine Gael could yet face the emergence of a similar party, potentially arising from the existing Reform Alliance grouping, between now and the next election. Finally, there is the context of a Labour Party in government facing a serious political challenge from the left of the political spectrum – the only difference between 1985 and today is the fact the level of such challenges to Labour is decidedly more intensive in the present day.


About Adrian Kavanagh

Lecturer at the Maynooth University Department of Geography. Email:
This entry was posted in Election data, Electoral Geography (voting maps), Gender, local elections and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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