How Parties Win

Shaping the Irish Political Arena
Sean D. McGraw
Ireland’s major political parties maintain their power by playing voters’ interests and issues to their own advantage


In recent decades, Ireland’s three major political parties have maintained over 80 percent of the vote in the face of rapidly shifting social divisions, political values, and controversial issues, though not by giving voice to particular interest groups or reacting to issues of the day. Rather, Sean D. McGraw reveals how party leaders select, or purposely sideline, pressing political and social issues in order to preserve their competitive advantage. By relegating divisive issues to extraparliamentary institutions, such as referenda or national wage bargaining systems, major parties mitigate the effects of changing environments and undermine the appeal of minor parties.

This richly textured case study of the major parties in the Republic of Ireland engages the broader comparative argument that political parties actively shape which choices are available to the electorate and—just as importantly—which are not. Additionally, McGraw sets a new standard for mixed-method research by employing public opinion surveys, party manifestos, content analysis of media coverage, the author’s own survey of nearly two-thirds of Irish parliamentarians in both 2010 and 2012, and personal interviews conducted over the course of six years.

“This book has a great deal to offer—both to the comparative politics specialist and to those with a more focused interest in the life and politics of Ireland. It will quickly become a definitive account of modern Irish politics.”
—R. Kenneth Carty, University of British Columbia

“McGraw provides a timely challenge to conventional assumptions that party system stability is easily maintained. In a fascinating case-study of the Republic of Ireland, he shows that there is nothing automatic or self-evident about this. Ireland experienced enormous social and economic change over three decades with relatively little change in the party system; then the effects of the global financial crisis of 2008 upended old certainties. Drawing on leading theories of party system change, McGraw zones in on the active role of parties in managing ideological, institutional, and organizational adaptation. His study adds a new dimension to understanding the Irish ‘earthquake election’ in 2011 that transformed the shape of electoral competition. This very readable book is bound to be of considerable value to scholars of party systems and comparative politics as well as to those interested in Irish politics.”
—Niamh Hardiman, University College Dublin

“Parties and party systems in Europe have never seemed more vulnerable. In this model case study, which has widespread applicability, McGraw explores how Ireland’s three major parties have maintained the support of more than three-quarters of the electorate since the 1930s despite dramatic social, economic, and political changes. His conclusions, based on strong theoretical and empirical analyses, show how Irish parties have survived by variously responding to, displacing and deflecting demands for change.”
—Michael Marsh, Trinity College Dublin

Cover image courtesy of the Houses of the Oireachtas, © Edward Canavan

Sean D. McGraw is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, where he is a Fellow in the Helen Kellogg Institute for International Studies, the Institute for Educational Initiatives, the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies, and the Nanovic Institute for European Studies.

Praise / Awards

  • "An important contribution to the literature on party systems, elections, and European politics…Highly Recommended."
    --Choice Reviews

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Product Details

  • 304 pages.
  • 16 figures, 22 tables.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Ebook
  • 2015
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-12081-9

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  • Contemporary Ireland, Political Parties, Elections, Electoral Predominance, Institutional Displacement of Issues, Extra-parliamentary Institutions, Referenda, Localism, Ireland’s Political Parties: Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour, Green Party, Sinn Féin, Progressive Democrats, People Before Profit, Independents, Representative Democracy, Partisanship, Parliamentary Survey, Case Study