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Mostly, in news broadcasts and the like, when there is some political business going on overseas, it will be between parties which can be described with short epithets to give foreigners a broad brush (and probably rather inaccurate) picture of the cut of the jib of the various parties: centre-right, populist-nationalist, socialist, christian democrat, and so on.

Usually, any particular struggle will be between two parties or factions which can be differentiated on that basis. For example, in a centre-right party, a traditionalist conservative wing might fall out with the free-market liberal wing. Or there might be a fight between a socialist party and a capitalist party. And so, on. This at least gives listeners the illusion of understanding the matter at hand.

This seems not to work for understanding the Republic of Ireland. Sinn Féin, The Labour Party and Solidarity-PBP are understandable on this basis, but from the outside the two historically largest parties seem almost impossible to distinguish! Both seem to be centre-to-centre-right christian democratic parties, and they seem to exchange policies and positions at a confusing rate (for an outsider).

I've read a little about the founding of the Republic and the Civil War and I kind of understand where the parties came from historically and how, back in the day, that would have been very important. Also, it seems to me that the Irish Civil War was not so long ago in the memory, and that the wounds from civil wars take a long time to heal.

But how does an Irish person, at the ballot box, inclined to the centre-right, choose between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael? Is it possible for someone outside to understand? Is it something like tribal loyalty, supporting a team? Or, in complete contrast, is it a matter of who happens to have the better manifesto at each election? Does it reflect class, history, region, etc? Is there actually some difference in traditional left/right (or similar) terms which I've failed to pick up on?

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    The described situation surely has someting to do with the voting system used in Ireland (STV). Under FPTP or a proportional system with a high threshold, they would have needed to unite or lose. – michau Sep 29 at 14:18
  • (or drift ideologically away from each other) – michau Sep 29 at 14:32
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This is a hard question to answer because as you say, there isn't much obvious difference between the two outside of the context of the Civil War, where Fine Gael were pro-treaty and Fianna Fáil were anti-treaty.

However, we can make some generalisations, which various journalists have noted. This mostly revolves around Fianna Fáil's being more rural and socially conservative, while Fine Gael is more urban and middle class. Simply, Fianna Fáil is a bit more like a traditional labour party, while Fine Gael is a bit more like a liberal party.

This comes from Fianna Fáil historically presenting itself as a radical option, to contrast Fine Gael's representation of those with money or British ties. Fianna Fáil has viewed themselves as Ireland's equivalent of a labour party, and consequently had argued there was no need for a labour party. Indeed, Fianna Fáil has had ties with Northern Ireland's Social Democratic and Labour Party.

To give a broader international comparison, which unfortunately does not necessarily help, Fianna Fáil are members of the European Union's Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, while Fine Gael were a founding member of the European People's Party... which are both pro-European liberal groupings.

However, this alignment doesn't make much sense given that parties with "people's" in the name in Europe usually are populist and traditional, which is the niche Fianna Fáil is mean to be filling instead of Fine Gael.

  • Interesting, I thought members of EPP were slightly more socially conservative than members of ALDE. – michau Sep 29 at 14:57
  • @michau I think that's true, as any European "people's party" usually has traditional and populist overtones. But the fact this appears to be Fianna Fail's niche and not Fine Gael's makes the alignment in Europe odd. Perhaps I should put that explicitly. – inappropriateCode Sep 29 at 15:52
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    For a more empirical analysis of support in social strata, which basically backs this up, one can look at ucd.ie/economics/t4media/WP2019_15.pdf for example. – Fizz Sep 29 at 17:51

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