Kevin O'Higgins Solicitors

State funding for political parties acts as a bar against new parties

Friday, 9 January, 2015
The Irish Times
Noel Whelan

In a piece for a collection of essays in memory of former attorney general the late Rory Brady, recently published by Round Hall, I described politicians as akin to players who get to write the rules for their own sport.

Because of their experience in electioneering and political activity, TDs and Senators see themselves as well qualified to make electoral laws. They are slower to recognise that as incumbents they are massively conflicted in doing so.

The piece was a review of developments in electoral law over the past two decades, and one of the things that struck me most forcibly when researching it was the extent to which established political parties and incumbent parliamentarians are now provided with State funding and how this operates not only to the disadvantage of non-incumbents but also impedes the development of new parties.

The motives behind the introduction of exchequer funding for political parties were benign. It was designed to wean Irish politics off its corrupting dependency on donations from wealthy corporations or individuals.

Such is the extent of State funding of politics in this country, however, that, combined with restrictions on donations, it distorts our political market place and is a big barrier to new entrants.

In addition to the fact that sitting TDs and Senators are provided with secretarial support, researchers and funding for constituency office operations, large annual grants are also provided to political parties under two statutory headings.

First, all registered parties represented in the Oireachtas are provided with an annual payment to fund their parliamentary activities. These payments, historically known as “the party leaders’ allowance” – and more recently renamed parliamentary assistance allowances – have long been paid to party leaders for their parliamentary office and party press and research activities. The total amount of State funds paid to all parties under this heading in 2013 was over €7.4 million.

General election

Second, under the terms of part III of the Electoral Act 1997, large amounts of public funding are also provided to the four large parties annually to fund their party organisations. The total amount paid under this funding line in 2013 was €5.5 million allocated between the four largest parties in accordance with their percentage share of the national first-preference poll in the last general election.

The use of this money is restricted to general administration, research, training, policy formulation and co-ordination of the activities of branches and members.

The Act specifically prohib the spending of these monies on electioneering. Of course in reality the availability of these substantial funds enables parties to divert other finances, such as the proceeds of members’ draws or national collections, exclusively to electoral activity. It effectively provides the parties with a plethora of full-time State-funded political organisers to keep their large political machines well-oiled in preparation for election campaigns.

Similar amounts

Under these two headings combined Fine Gael got just under €5 million in 2013, Fianna Fáil just over €2.8 million, Labour got €3 million and Sinn Féin got just over €1.8 million. Similar amounts were paid to them in 2014, and will be again in 2015 assuming no election until early next year.

In 2013 People Before Profit got €143,000, and the Socialist Party €74,000 under the parliamentary activities scheme, while TDs elected as Independents in 2011 got over €41,000 each and Independent Senators got €23,000 each in annual grants for parliamentary activity.

These smaller parties or Independents do not get money under the annual party grant because they did not reach a 2 per cent threshold in the 2011 election.

It is also worth noting that another part of the Electoral Act 1997 provides for a reimbursement of election expenses to candidates in Dáil elections. In order to qualify for this reimbursement, however, a candidate must have achieved at least one quarter of the quota either in first preference votes or in first preference votes and transfers.

In the 2011 Dáil election 328 candidates qualified for reimbursement of election expenses, including, obviously, the 166 TDs elected. The maximum amount which the law then provided could be reimbursed to qualified candidates at Dáil elections was €8,700. A total of just over €2.5 million was paid out in this way. This scheme is by its very nature heavily weighted towards those who are electorally strongest.

Political scientists have estimated that sitting TDs and Senators have enjoyed a significant electoral advantage even before this State funding was introduced. Some have measured this “incumbency advantage” as giving sitting TDs at least an additional quarter of a quota, all else being equal.

The incumbency advantages clearly dissipated somewhat in 2011 and is likely to be weakened again at the next general election by the anti-establishment mood reflected in recent opinion polls. That said, incumbent parliamentarians and the four large political parties will still enjoy a significant financial advantage against the newly emerging parties or political groupings.