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The 2011 Irish General Election: Critical, Realigning, Deviating, or Something Else?

Timothy J. White*

In the Irish general election of February 25, 2011, the historic largest party, Fianna Fáil, paid a price for its control of government during the recent financial collapse. This party which had won the most votes and seats in every Irish general election since 1932 won fewer seats than Fine Gael and Labour, and its share of the voters’ first preferences dropped from 41 to 17 percent. Fianna Fáil’s coalition partner, the Greens, lost all six seats they held in the Dáil. These parties suffered at the polls due to the bank failures, the decision by the Irish government to guarantee the debt accumulated by the Irish banks, and the subsequent financial collapse that came to Ireland as international creditors increasingly came to the conclusion that Ireland either could not or would not repay its debt. Given the historic tendency for Irish representatives to be reelected – the incumbency advantage, these losses are all the more historic and significant. I will focus on how these economic problems in Ireland caused the most dramatically different Irish general election since 1932. In doing so, I will place this election in both a contemporary political context as well as a larger theoretical framework. The property bubble that led developers and mortgage holders to take on too much debt, financed by questionable loans made by Irish financial institutions, and supported by government policy led to the biggest change in partisan electoral behavior in eighty years.

The Economic Backdrop to the 2011 ElectionToC

Voters in Ireland in 2011 were reacting to a recession that began in 2007 as unemployment rose that year to 4.6%. In 2008, unemployment increased to an annual rate of 6.4% while GDP was shrinking by an annual rate of 4.5% by the fourth quarter of that year. The effects of the recession were most noticeable in 2009 with GDP declining in every quarter and the unemployment rate for the year was 11.8%. Unemployment for all of 2010 averaged 13.6% and has peaked and held steady at 14.7% through early 2011 (Central Statistics Office, 2011b: 7). The economy continued in recession throughout 2010 as GDP fell by 1% (Central Statistics Office, 2011c: 2). What caused this economic collapse and resulting financial crisis? The success of the Irish economy in the early years of the Celtic Tiger meant that the Irish had unprecedented disposable income. While much of the higher family incomes were used to purchase more consumer goods and achieve a higher material standard of living, some of the new wealth was available for investment. Due to a history where land provided the basis of wealth in a traditional agricultural society, much of the investment of the Celtic Tiger went into investments in land, development, and construction (Coleman, 2009: 76-78; Murphy and Devlin, 2009: 32; Ó Dálaigh, 2009: 45-46). As a result, there was a rapid acceleration of home prices, and construction, especially in the residential sector, boomed. Developers built homes and used the initial payments for these homes to purchase more land and build even more homes. The leveraging in this process meant that the value of the developers’ properties far exceeded the cash that they used to secure loans for future developments. The emphasis on investment in property and wealth built in construction has been identified as the “development disease” of Ireland (Cooper, 2009: 238).

The banks played an important part in the promotion of the construction sector by facilitating the credit developers and consumers needed even if they did not have as much collateral as had historically been required. The rise of Anglo Irish Bank, based primarily on loads to developers, put pressure on the long established Allied Irish Bank and the Bank of Ireland to liberalize their credit policies (Cooper, 2009: 166). Irish banks became reckless in providing loans when the value of the collateralized property was so inflated, but banking executives did not exclusively cause the problem of the property bubble. At the consumer level, the Irish increasingly took thirty-five year zero percent down mortgages (Ross, 2009: 141). As a result of a parallel panic for property at the mass level, mortgage debt grew by 24% annually from 1996-2006 and the total debt the Irish owned on home loans grew by 760% in this decade (Murphy and Devlin, 2009: 40). Housing prices doubled between 2000 and 2006 and overall bank lending for real estate rose from €5.5 billion in 1999 to €96.2 billion in 2007 (Jack, 2010: 48). Hence, banks experienced exorbitant profits based on the highly inflated values of very questionable assets, both overvalued mortgages and loans to developers (Allen, 2009: 8-14; Ó Dálaigh, 2009: 19-28 and 63-108).

Instead of regulating and attempting to thwart the property bubble, government policy actually accentuated the boom in residential and to a lesser extent commercial construction. Ireland’s finance Minister in the late 1990s, Charlie McCreevy, provided €2 billion in tax incentives to encourage investment in property (Murphy and Devlin, 2009: 127). By 2005 and 2006, the government had come to see construction as the critical sector necessary to sustaining the economic growth associated with the Celtic Tiger phenomenon. Employment in this sector grew from 126,100 in 1998 to 282,000 by the end of 2006. By this time, one in four males was employed in the construction sector (Murphy and Devlin, 2009: 33; Ó Dálaigh, 2009: 56-58), and the government increasing relied on the revenues called stamp duty that came with the rapid escalation of property prices and their sale (Ó Dálaigh, 2009: 58 and O’Toole, 2009: 120-121). Thus, construction had replaced pharmaceuticals and information technology as the sector propelling the Irish economy forward with high rates of economic growth.

The government’s policies of maximizing home-building not only served to keep this increasingly important sector thriving but was also justified as necessary to solve the problem of rapidly escalating home prices. Home prices had risen so rapidly that they now exceeded what middle or lower wage earners could afford. While this should have served as a warning sign to the property bubble, instead it justified government policy to continue expansion of residential construction. The government hoped that by having home building reach the point where supply outstripped demand that the cost of housing would finally become more affordable for middle and lower income Irish citizens. Unfortunately, their policy only served to increase the size of the housing bubble, which finally burst in 2008.

The property bubble actually began to collapse in 2007 when housing prices dropped by 7.3%, but the government and many in the banks refused to confront the reality of dropping property values (Ross, 2009: 173-174). By the third quarter of 2007, the construction sector of the economy began to shrink at a modest rate of 1.3%. The decline of the construction sector accelerated through 2008 so that it had reached a rate of -18.7% by the last quarter of that year. In 2009, construction declined by more than 30%, and in 2010 the collapse of this sector continued with a decline of 31.8% (Central Statistics Office, 2011c: 1). The number of residential buildings completed between 2006 and 2009 declined by 82% (Central Statistics Office, 2010: 202). Moreover, those employed in construction dropped from 269,600 in 2007 to only 125,300 in 2010. Job losses in the construction sector account for more than 75% of the increase in unemployment in Ireland since the recession began, (Central Statistics Office, 2011a). Hence, the excessive debt accumulated in this sector caused the financial crisis that led to the recession in Ireland.

Even if we can identify the initial cause of Ireland’s economic problems, this does not directly help to explain how the government reacted to the threatened collapse of the Irish banking system in the fall of 2008. From what we now know, it appears that the Fianna Fáil led government believed that Ireland’s economy required a stable financial system and that if the government did not bail out the Irish banks, many other sectors of the economy would collapse as well (Cooper, 2009: xi-xvii; Murphy and Devlin, 2009: 4; Ross, 2009: 193). While the excesses and questionable practices of Irish bankers could have been prevented by better regulation, what was less preventable was the global financial crisis that tended to exacerbate the banking crisis in Ireland. As a result of the collapse of the banks and the government takeover, the Irish government took control of the bad debts of the Irish banks and placed them under the National Assets Management Agency (NAMA). NAMA has the unenviable job of liquidating the bad debt accumulated by Irish banks. This process will inevitably be painful for the Irish taxpayer who will have to pay for the risks and in some cases outright corruption of Irish banks and their lending practices (Allen, 2009: 140-145).

The most important impact of the banking crisis in Ireland and the government’s commitment to support the Irish banking sector has been a dramatic and sudden increase in the debt of the Irish government as well as a rise in the annual deficit. Government revenues have declined rapidly, and social welfare costs have escalated rapidly. This has placed increasing pressure on the value of the bonds the Irish government holds to finance its debt. The annual government deficit reached 32% of GDP in 2010. As a result, the Fianna Fáil led government conceded to a joint EU-IMF bailout program in December of 2010. The €85 billion of financial support came in equal increments of €22.5 billion from the European Financial Stability Mechanism, The European Financial Stability Fund, and the International Monetary Fund. The Irish government also allocated €17.5 billion from its National Pension Reserve Fund and other domestic cash resources. The interest rate the Irish government secured for these loans form the EU and IMF was 5.8%, far below the 9% the Irish government was paying on the private market to finance its debt. The Irish government used €35 billion of these funds to support the banking system. €10 billion was used for immediate recapitalization and the other €25 billion will be used on a contingency basis. Overall, the government will use €50 billion to finance the state and thereby reduce the need to seek private capital funding of the government deficit in the near term.

The goal of the December 2010 bailout was to allow the Irish government to develop a budget plan that will lower their annual budget deficit to 3% of GDP by 2015. This has historically been the standard debt allowed in Eurozone states and that required by the EU/IMF bailout. In order to achieve this objective, the Irish government developed a four-year budget plan, which cuts spending and raises taxes to lower the deficit. In 2011, the government cut €6 billion from the deficit. Overall, the government expects to trim the deficit by a total of €15 billion in the budgets for the next four years (The National Recovery Plan 2011-2014, 2010: 5). The government realized that the budget must be made to come closer into balance to reduce the skyrocketing cost of financing the rapidly growing debt. The Irish government plan reduced spending by twice as much as it relied on new means of revenue collection. The Irish government increased the VAT and lowered the bands or the wage levels for income tax as a means of raising the €5 billion in additional revenue to lower the annual deficits and the long-term debt problem Ireland faces (The National Recovery Plan 2011-2014, 2010: 9). The government’s plan to deal with the debt also included reducing the minimum wage and other steps to keep the Irish economy competitive. Combined, these policies are lowering consumption and inhibiting the recovery from the recession. Cutting social services and the minimum wage and raising taxes proved very unpopular, and the opposition to the plan caused the collapse of the Irish government as the Greens withdrew their support for the Fianna Fáil led government. Taoiseach Brian Cowen announced that a general election was to be held on February 25, 2011.

Theoretical Approaches to Electoral ChangeToC

Political Scientists have long identified a “critical” or “realigning” election where a historic party system is modified significantly or replaced based on fundamental changes that come to society (Key, 1955). These are often the result of large-scale social forces like civil wars, depressions, or other large scale social change such as industrialization or post-industrialization. The development of the scholarly literature on critical or realigning literature has come primarily in the American context (Burnham, 1970; Clubb, Flanigan, and Zingale, 1980; Mayhew, 2000; Nardulli, 1995; Schattschneider, 1960; Schofield, Miller, and Martin, 2003; and Sundquist, 1973), but there has been at least one effort to apply this theoretical approach to the British party system (Clarke, Stewart, and Whitely, 2001). While the realignment literature has been widely criticized for simplifying the complexity and long-term processes of social change that cause realignments of parties and electoral behavior (Carmines and Stinson, 1989: 21-23; Mayhew, 2002; Shafer, 1991), from the beginning scholars of realignment have recognized that there may be long-term patterns of social change at work that gradually modify party systems in ways that are not nearly as sudden as theories of critical elections may appear to suggest (Key, 1959).

More recent and nuanced efforts to apply the logic of a “critical era” argue that sometimes a significant change can happen without necessarily changing the overall party system (Aldrich, 1999). Stonecash (2008) contends that a realignment can occur among the voters while the parties overall level of support remains roughly in place. Several studies of American politics had argued that partisan identification changed after the 1960s whereby northern whites became more closely identified with the Democratic Party while Southern whites became even more closely identified with Republicans (Miller and Shanks, 1996: 170-178; Reiter and Stonecash, 2011; Stonecash, Brewer, and Mariani, 2003: 81-106). The net effect of these changes on the support of each party at the national level was minimal even though significant changes had occurred in different regions. Thus, the aggregate stability of party support can disguise the changing political orientations and party loyalties of groups in an electorate. Despite these caveats and qualifications, theories of critical elections that offer explanations for sudden and dramatic changes in party loyalties and voting behavior have an inherent theoretical appeal.

The Irish 2011 election can clearly be identified as a watershed election, one that defies the electoral outcomes of the past several decades. Figure 1 clearly demonstrates that by the 1930s the Irish party system had developed and was quite stable until this recent election. [Figure 1 Here] This party system featured Fianna Fáil as the predominant party, Fine Gael being the second strongest party, and Labour a distant third party. While other parties have emerged periodically and independents have done well at times, the historic three largest parties have proven able to coopt these parties and independents and regain their status in the party system. The success of independents and other parties may indicate that the three largest parties are not successfully offering an agenda to the Irish electorate in certain periods. This is most obvious in the 1940s and in the elections since 1987. The three largest parties have often struggled to maintain their popular support, but the rank order of the parties has stayed intact since 1932 with Fianna Fáil always finishing first, Fine Gael second, and Labour finishing third in all but two elections until 2011.

If 2011 proves to be a “critical” election, this would mean that the Irish party system has been permanently altered. This would also suggest that Fianna Fáil would not likely recover in future elections and permanently remain a distant third party in Irish politics or disappear altogether. The latter outcome, while not immediately or necessarily likely, would amount to what one scholar has recently identified as a party “disalignment” where a majority of the core supporters of a party permanently abandon it (Mack, 2010: 2). While Fianna Fáil’s opponents may hope this to be true, there is no way to know this until future elections are held and these elections confirm that the Irish public has significantly altered party loyalties.

Alternatively, one could identify the 2011 election results in Ireland as a “deviating” election based on short-term trends that do not subsequently change historical patterns of voting behavior (Stokes, 1962). The assumption of a deviating election is that the changes that caused an unusual electoral outcome – partisan support differs significantly from previous and subsequent elections – does not transform the long-term partisan identity of the electorate. If the 2011 election proves to be a deviating election, it would mean that Fianna Fáil could regroup and reorganize and once again emerge as the largest political party in Ireland. While Fianna Fáil and the Greens dramatically lost support and other parties benefitted in 2011, this pattern may not be repeated as the parties that were associated with the recession and financial debacle recover their previous levels of electoral support. A deviating election assumes that the long-term basis of partisan identification remains intact or at least the long-term aggregate levels of party support will return. Voters’ historic party loyalty or voting tendency will reappear in subsequent elections.

Both theories of critical and deviating elections assume that election outcomes and partisan alignments do not conform to the “normal” vote or the continuation of historic trends of party support (Converse, 1966). In other words, one normally expects historical patterns to continue in terms of partisan support in elections. Given the dramatically different result in the Irish election, it is obvious that the outcome did not conform to the party system that has been in place since the early twentieth century. The strength of partisan identification is historically correlated with continuity in partisan support from election to election (Converse, 1966: 19-22). This theory of the normal vote corresponds to the general notion of partisan stability that Converse (1969) emphasized in his famous work on the stability of partisan identification and how it is typically transferred from one generation of voters to the next.

Although most assume that elections will follow this normal pattern based on continuity in party identification, there have been a number of studies that have highlighted the process of dealignment, especially in advanced industrial democracies (Dalton, 1984 and 2000; Dalton, Flanagan, and Beck, 1984; Inglehart, 1990: 355-358; Nie, Verba, and Petrocik, 1976: 47-73). These studies emphasize that socioeconomic change including urbanization, rising levels of education, and cognitive mobilization mean that voters can directly evaluate candidates based on their own personal political orientations and not rely on party identification to be their major cue for voting. Instead, there has been a rise of issue voting (Nie, Verba, and Petrocik, 1976: 156-173) as well as new social movements and new political parties (Kitschelt, 1990). Younger cohorts have emerged who have not inherited the party identification of the previous generation, and the historic process that brought partisan stability from one generation to the next has been at least partially severed (Miller and Shanks, 1996: 155-157). Thus, over the last couple of generations, we have witnessed partisan dealignment of voters to traditional political parties in a number of states. One of the principle consequences of this dealignment according to some will be greater volatility of voter support for different parties resulting in more dramatic shifts of votes between parties and for new parties and independents from one election to the next (Dalton, McAlllister, and Wattenberg, 2000).

Efforts to apply the logic of critical elections to the Irish context identify the elections of 1918 or 1922 as the critical elections that defined the partisan cleavage and party system in Independent Ireland (Coakley, 2004; Farrell, 1970). The 1927 election was critical as well in that it symbolized the entrance of the opponents of the treaty, Fianna Fáil, into electoral politics in the Free State (Mair, 1987: 15-18). By 1932, Fianna Fáil led a predominant party system as those who had opposed the Anglo-Irish treaty and the Free State government came into power (Mair, 1979). This party system, the “normal” vote, and election results were built on the dominance of Fianna Fáil and the effort by Fine Gael to form coalitions with Labour and at times other parties to unseat Fianna Fáil from power. The two largest parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, had emerged after the civil war and held conflicting views of the merits of the Anglo-Irish treaty. This had been the major political cleavage when the Irish party system emerged after independence, and as Lipset and Rokkan argued (1967) the basis for partisan competition was likely to endure unless a dramatic political change took place. Labour emerged as the third party in Irish politics playing a historic role as coalition partner with Fine Gael and in the 1990s assumed the same role with Fianna Fáil. The ability of the Irish parties to adapt to the changing political environment in Ireland since the 1930s demonstrates the flexibility of these parties (McGraw, 2008). They have become what Kircheimer (1966) identified as catch-all parties. This means that the cleavage that originally defined party differences fades as parties reorient their policies and message to attract voters based on the issues of current importance to the electorate. Electoral outcomes and the party system in Ireland remained remarkably stable through the 2007 general election (McKenzie, 2007; White, 2010).

The transition of Irish political parties away from their original organization and ideology has resulted in parties with the same labels as eighty years ago having a different brand or identity today. Parties professionalized their organizations and campaign techniques beginning in the 1960s (Mair and Marsh, 2004: 234), and there was a perception that these more centralized and professionalized parties were increasingly competitive by the 1990s (Farrell, 1994). Thus, political parties in Ireland as in the US have evolved based on the historical setting and especially based on technological changes that come to society that alter how parties develop and communicate with voters (Aldrich, 1995: 5). Despite changes to parties’ organizations and ideologies, the electoral dominance of Fianna Fáil remained intact through the 2007 general election as did Fine Gael’s persistence as the second largest party and Labour as the third party even if Fianna Fáil increasingly needed to rely on coalition partners to form a government. The stability of electoral outcomes defied the changing nature of party competition in Ireland as parties and the relationship of voters to parties evolved over the past few decades.

As the scholarly literature on dealignment suggests, the greatest long-term threat to the stability of partisan alignment is deterioration of partisan identification of voters. The long-term pattern of partisan dealignment in Ireland makes election results more fluid since fewer and fewer voters are strong party identifiers (Mair, 1987: 78-79; Mair and Marsh, 2004: 240; Marsh, 1985: 193-197; Marsh, Sinnott, Garry, and Kennedy, 2008: 3 and 60; Murphy and Farrell, 2002). Because time has elapsed since the Irish Civil War that served to define the original political cleavage that determined party loyalties in the early decades of the Irish Free State and later Republic, younger voters today are less likely to maintain the loyalty to their party based on inheritance of party identification from previous generations (Mair and Marsh, 2004: 240-242). Nevertheless, as predicted by earlier party identification theory, there is a strong tendency for party identification to be passed from one generation to the next, especially when both parents identify with the same political party (Marsh, Sinnott, Garry, and Kennedy, 2008: 72-77). Party identification still matters, but there is a more fluid and volatile electorate in Ireland today than in previous generations.

Despite some centralization of party activity in recent decades, the continued importance of local candidates in their own constituency has continued to keep candidates close to their electorate, and this has served to keep Irish politicians and parties connected to voters (White, 2010). The role of candidates and TDs in providing constituent service provides an alternative explanation for voting behavior beyond the typical assumption that voters rely on party identification or policy or ideological agreement with candidates (Cain, Ferejohn, and Fiorina, 1987). There have been numerous studies stressing the importance of constituency service as a critical factor determining electoral success in the Irish political system (Farrell, 1985; Komito, 1992; Marsh, Sinnott, Garry, and Kennedy, 2008: 128-145; Wood and Young, 1997). The success of clientelistic or patronage politics has served the dominant political parties in Ireland well until the recent government’s demise. In 2011, it did not seem to matter to voters that many Fianna Fáil and Green incumbents had a long history of delivering to their constituents.

Just as Fianna Fáil candidates may have been credited and benefitted in the minds of Irish voters for the Celtic Tiger (Marsh, 2008; Marsh, Sinnott, Garry, and Kennedy, 2008: 81-108), the failure to handle the fallout of the property bubble (or perhaps cause it) resulted in many voters deciding to not support Fianna Fáil and Green candidates in the 2011 election. The voters’ abandonment of Fianna Fáil in this election had nothing to do with the legacy of civil war politics in Ireland. Instead, Fianna Fáil’s demise is best explained by their linkage with government policies associated with the recent economic collapse. This linkage between poor performance of the economy and voters’ rejection of the party or parties in power is well established in the literature (Fiorina, 1981; Kinder and Kiewiet, 1981). Mack (2010: 6-7) suggests that when the leadership of a party has failed, the base of the party has been alienated, and successor parties are available, a party may disappear. He contends that this is more likely in a single member district or first past the post election system. One of the major advantages for Fianna Fáil is that there are not new parties that seem to be emerging to take its place. While Fine Gael and Labour clearly benefitted, they are not new parties to the Irish system. Moreover, the demise of the Greens and after 2007 the Progressive Democrats means that the newer parties that had emerged in recent decades are no longer a serious threat to Fianna Fáil or for that matter other existing Irish political parties. Sinn Féin did increase both its share of the popular vote and seats in the Dáil in 2011, but its increase appeared more incremental rather than dramatic or large enough to be said to be part of a pattern of replacing Fianna Fáil.

Critics of critical election or realignment theory would suggest that the 2011 election was a long time coming. The deterioration of close linkages between voters and parties had dissipated over time as the civil war cleavage was decreasingly relevant to the political issues the Irish government and voters faced in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. It is clear that at least since the 1980s, the Irish election outcomes are more volatile because of the dealignment of voters from parties (Mair, 1987: 80; Marsh, Sinnott, Garry, and Kennedy, 2008: 61). From this perspective, the 2011 elections served to demonstrate trends that had been identified decades earlier. The dealignment that had been taking place over the last several decades liberated Irish voters, especially Fianna Fáil voters, to take their wrath out on Fianna Fáil candidates. Carty (2008) identified a pattern of long-term Fianna Fáil decline through the 2007 election. The most recent election results only serve as a more dramatic manifestation of the trends Carty identified over the past few decades. Fianna Fáil’s demise as the dominant party in the Irish system is similar to analysis of the collapse of Democratic Party’s New Deal coalition and party system since the 1960s (Carmines, McIver, and Stimson, 1987; Lawrence, 1996).

Despite some ominous signs of long-term decline, Fianna Fáil, like other political parties, can reinvent itself. Given the absence of a new and seemingly obvious replacement, it may be too early to write the obituary of Fianna Fáil. Only subsequent election results will demonstrate whether 2011 was a critical, realigning, or deviating election. A resurgence of Fianna Fáil in the next election might not mean that the old party system has returned but confirm that the long-term decline of partisan identification among voters has created a much more volatile electorate in Ireland. The fate of Fianna Fáil, like all political parties, is linked to the ability of those who seek election to recapture the imagination of the public (Aldrich, 1995). Fianna Fáil must in the future be as they have been identified as in the past to reflect or best represent the “spirit of the nation” (Haughey, 1986). This identity will be less linked to a postcolonial nationalism that historically provided Fianna Fáil its dominance. Future Fianna Fáil leaders will need to develop a reformulated message that will attract voters struggling in the wake of a recession that many perceive to be caused by Fianna Fáil incompetence and corruption. Repackaging or rebranding will be necessary as Fianna Fáil leaders seek to reinvent their party and plan for a comeback in future Irish elections.


The new Fine Gael and Labour coalition government led by Enda Kenny will strive to improve upon the deal the previous government struck with the EU and IMF to finance the Irish debt as the government develops policies to dramatically reduce its annual deficit. It is unlikely that the new Irish government will be able to change significantly the agreement of December 2010, nor will it seek to abandon many of the policies that were seen as successful in the prelude to the financial collapse. The Irish government’s policies of seeking to develop a high tech export driven economy focusing on pharmaceuticals and medical devices is likely to remain intact. The 12.5% corporate tax rate remains a priority of the new government despite pressure from some in Europe and the international community to raise this tax as part of an effort to raise the revenue necessary to relieve the deficit and debt. The new Irish government remains committed to this low tax rate and has refused to concede to pressures because, like the previous government, they believe this low tax rate is a major incentive for international investment that fuels long-term economic growth. Despite some continuity in some aspects of economic policy, the contours of Irish partisan politics have been shaken by the election of 2011. The ability of Fine Gael and Labour to hold their level of support and seats in the Dáil will be dependent on their ability to improve the economic situation which is increasingly the criterion Irish voters use to support candidates and parties in their national elections. Future elections will determine if the 2011 election results were critical, realigning, or deviating in terms of the historic Irish party system.


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