© 2016, © The Author(s) 2016. Comparatively slow in adopting any clear activation strategy, post-crisis Ireland crossed the Rubicon and rapidly took steps to implement a work-first labour activation strategy. The article maps and examines the interaction of three variables – ideational influences, political interests and institutional processes – to assess the nature of post-crisis Irish activation policy. Troika imposition of aid conditionality, the ideational role of the OECD and domestic elites worked to shift the focus of Irish activation policy and its implementation. Post-crisis Irish activation is less influenced by social democratic versions of high-road activation than neo-liberal managerial stock management and conservative behavioural controls. These converge into a low-road model of activation. There is some demand for, but little articulation of, an alternative policy that could be centred around less conditionality and more focus on demand-side issues including low pay, quality work, distribution of employment and removal of barriers to employment.