"Born to Rule”-Ireland’s dynastic politics

Published on 4 July 2020 at 09:43

Among the various analysis and controversy around the new cabinet, from gender balance to geographic distribution, an aspect that has been completely overlooked or indeed taken for granted is the political pedigree of new ministers. Indeed, that phrase "it is in the blood" has featured widely on social media and in discussion. It seems political dynasties endure in Ireland.

The pedigree of the members of cabinet is staggering; Calleary is a third generation Fianna Fáil representative for Mayo. Coveney has been destined for high political office since his days in Clongowes. Helen McEntee’s inheritance of her father's seat is well vaunted and venerated here in Meath. Barry Cowan's lineage needs no introduction. The relative obscurity of Norma Foley has been offset by the contextualisation of her father's notorious stint as a TD. Catherine Martin's brother was selected as one of the Green Party's Seanad candidates last weekend. Another new Seanadaóir, Emer Currie is a scion of Austin Currie.


Indeed, this is hardly a shocking development. A glance around the hallowed chambers of power in Leinster House reveals political dynasties unbroken since the 1916 Rising; from Brutons and Blaneys to Haugheys and Healy Raes. The Irish political system seems to host a veritable political aristocracy. Amid the disputes on gender quotas much noise is made about meritocracy, however it is even more relevant in the quintessential Irish phenomenon of inheriting an Oireachtas seat. Indeed, much of the discourse around the appointments would suggest they "deserve" these positions by virtue of their forebearers.


Power begets power and self-perpetuation is an observed trait in politics. As a person accrues more power, it becomes more and more likely their offspring and descendants will benefit. A US study found legislators had the worst dynastic bias of any profession in the study, 15 times stronger than doctors, the third worst profession for the bias where 14% of doctors had fathers who were doctors. During the 2011 Irish general election it was suggested that roughly a quarter of those running had familial connections in politics.


Some political inheritance is to be expected in a system that rewards name recognition. On top of this, the Irish electorate tends to be loyal to those who personally deliver tangible benefits to them and political memory lasts a long time. There is also some sense to the idea that some families would generate more politicians. Ireland is a small country with big families. A politician in a home creates a vortex from which the household cannot escape; from discussing politics at the dinner table to spending weekends postering to fond memories of celebrations in count centres. The influence of a political upbringing is immense, especially considering that generally sons are 2.7 times as likely than the general populace to follow a father’s career path and daughters 1.7 as likely.


However, a passion for politics is not enough to succeed in the fickle world of politics. Party contacts, insider information and political capital such as name recognition go a long way and all are gifted to those with a famous surname. Fianna Fáil for example will always seriously consider fielding a candidate with the surname “Haughey” or “Lemass”, regardless of the ability and aptitude of said candidate. It goes without saying there are considerable benefits to launching a political career with a lineage but as Johnny Fallon, author of Dynasties: Irish Political Families coins it, there are  “double benefits” in dynastic politics: “It’s the old thing of where people will say, ‘they fixed the road’; it may be that their father fixed the road, but people still feel they owe them. That loyalty becomes much stronger with the family name than it does with the party brand, and parties, in particular, like to jump on that opportunity …The only disadvantage is, once they get in there, they carry a huge weight of expectation to live up to exactly who was there before them, People question whether he or she is as good as their father. A lot of them fail to live up to their famous predecessor.” This view appears to be shared by Conor Lenihan, a scion of one of the most successful Irish dynasties: “If you’re not up to it you get the electorate to ignore very quickly the fact that you’re a cousin of somebody or brother or whatever.”


This is of course not to say these politicians may not be the best for the job. They absolutely could. Simon Coveney for example is widely accepted as an incredibly able and experienced politician, regardless of his pedigree. But this simply cannot be true for every single politician who receives a leg up in their career by virtue of their ancestors.


But perhaps as the civil war era of politics draws to a close with this historic coalition, this notion of political pedigree granting legitimacy or entitlement can fade too. If we truly want a meritocracy, we must move past this idea that candidates “deserve” their seat by virtue of fathers or grandfathers. As Ireland ceases to vote for candidates based on what colour of poster their family has always voted for, we can begin to vote based on a candidate’s ability and ideas. As we stop voting for representatives based on the sins (or virtues) of our fathers, we can put to bed this notion of ‘born to rule’.


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