The Irish Times - Friday, May 28, 2010

Charting rise and rise of new kids on the bloc


ANALYSIS: Geography and diaspora voting has changed the Eurovision landscape – but Ireland can still put itself back on the map

IN THE 1997 Eurovision Song Contest, when Marc Roberts finished second to Katrina and the Waves, Ireland still stood as the undoubted ESC kingpins – with four wins in the previous five years and more overall wins (seven) than any other country. It seemed then that it would be a question of when – not if – Eurovision would be returning to Ireland. Since then, however, Ireland’s Eurovision story has been more Walking the Streets in the Rain and less Irlande Douze Points , unfortunately.

The average number of points won by Ireland in the song contest over the last 12 years is less than one-third of those won in the previous two decades, and well below the average points haul (169) of the mid-1990s glory days. The number of douze points (12 points, the maximum number that can be given by participating countries) awarded to Ireland has also fallen dramatically, with such scores only being awarded to Ireland by Lithuania (1999) and the UK (2003, 2005 semi-final) since 1997.

There has also been a dramatic change in terms of where Ireland wins its votes. Up to 1997, we were the classic catch-all participant, winning at least four points each year from the juries of other countries (bar Israel). But since then the UK has been the only regular Eurovision participant to continue this trend, and many parts of Europe are now a virtual desert in terms of Irish vote prospects.

Today, the main sources of votes for Ireland are much more geographically defined, with these mainly being drawn from the UK, Scandinavia and the Baltic States. This is not a simple nearest neighbours’ effect, however, as relatively few votes are won from some western European countries – in Eurovision terms, Ireland is very much closer to Bergen than to Brussels.

Changes made to the contest format over the past 12 years have no doubt had a role to play in Ireland’s faltering Eurovision form. The removal of the native language rule (which had given Ireland a significant advantage given the proven success of songs performed in English in the contest) in 1999 did have an impact.

But the most notable change was the replacement of jury voting by televoting over the 1997/1998 period, the impact of which was further heightened by the opening up of the contest to include new participants (mainly from central and eastern Europe) and the introduction of semi-finals in 2004. In its trial year in 1997, Ireland’s Marc Roberts actually won the largest number of televotes (mainly because UK televoters could not vote for Katrina and the Waves), but Ireland’s fortunes dipped dramatically over the following 12 years of full-blown televoting.

Countries were now tending to favour neighbouring states’ entries (often termed as political voting, but probably more accurately described as geographical voting).

Diaspora voting, wherein large numbers of migrants in a country results in a return flow of Eurovision points to their original countries, started to dominate the voting patterns of many western European countries. For instance, large numbers of migrants from Poland, Lithuania and Latvia meant that the Irish televote regularly awarded the big Eurovision points (eights, 10s and 12s) to these countries.

Countries that can rely on regular points tallies from diaspora and/or geographical voting regularly do well in Eurovision, despite some of them having been also-rans during the jury voting era. These include what one might call the Gruts countries (that is Greece, Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and Serbia), which have dominated the contest in the 2000s.

States such as Ireland, the UK, Slovakia and Switzerland, which lack the vote base provided by “friendly neighbours” and large diaspora populations in other European (or rather Eurovision) states, tend to fare poorly. Up to 2003, the impact of diaspora/ geographical televoting was initially blunted by the relegation system, which excluded a number of countries from each year’s contest, placing a limit on the number of countries from different voting blocs that would be competing in a given year.

The introduction of the semi-final system in 2004 means that every country could take part in Eurovision each year, strengthening the impact of the different voting blocs and tending to favour the newer Eurovision participants. Growing frustration from western countries has seen significant format changes in the past few years – a two-semi final system in 2008 and the introduction of a 50-50 jury-televoting system for the 2009 final and for both the semi-finals and final in this year’s contest.

Diaspora and geographical televoting has meant that voting patterns have become more predictable, with distinct regional voting blocs emerging, wherein countries are more likely to vote for other bloc members. These blocs often tend to favour one or two bloc members above all others – Russia for the former Soviet bloc, and Serbia for the former Yugoslav bloc – although blocs whose voting patterns are heavily shaped by diaspora voting often tend to award the high points to countries located outside of those blocs – Armenia (as well as Turkey) in the case of the Western European (Diaspora) bloc and Romania in the case of the Iberian bloc. Ireland is located within a Nordic/Baltic voting bloc, including the Nordic and Baltic States, as well as the UK, Poland and Hungary. Countries in this bloc tend to award/receive their highest votes to/from other countries in this bloc, with evidence of diaspora voting trends within the bloc evident in the very high points awarded by Ireland and the UK to the Baltic states in recent contests. While Sweden tended to attract the most bloc points in the early-to-mid 2000s, their position has been usurped in recent contests by the growing strength of the other Nordic states, most notably Norway and Iceland, who finished first and second in last year’s contest.

So are Ireland’s future Eurovision prospects doomed to failure? Not necessarily. MA research by Annemarie Reidy in the department of geography at NUI Maynooth suggests that many of our problems in the 2000s were self-inflicted (the You’re a Star selection process of 2003-2005, for instance, which was itself more about geographical voting and less about selecting a strong song for Eurovision).

The success of countries such as Finland, Norway and Iceland in recent years also shows that western European entries can still do well, and even win, with good songs and performances – especially given the reintroduction of the professional voting juries in the new 50-50 jury/televoting voting system.

This is especially good news for Niamh Kavanagh, given that juries tend to favour traditional ballads (in last year’s final the juries were significantly more favourable than the televoters were to the ballads from the UK, France, Israel and Iceland) and given our past successes with the old jury voting system.

Following last night’s typically classy performance in the “group of death” second semi-final, the results of which were still being calculated at the time of going to press, there is real hope that Niamh can seal progress and go on to do well in Saturday night’s showpiece. How well Niamh might do, if she makes it through, could well be down to her draw position in that final (we want the 17th position, and don’t want to go first), but that is another story in itself . . .

Adrian Kavanagh is a lecturer in the geography department at NUI Maynooth. His research specialisation is voter turnout, electoral geography and the geography of political conflict. Further information from:

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