Can Europe Make It?

Ireland’s caretaker government, and the shattering of a century-old duopoly

This recent period represents a seismic shift in Irish politics, with the previously unthinkable coming-together of the traditional rivals.

Barry Colfer
Barry Colfer
26 May 2020, 8.49am
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin, Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar and Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald in TV leaders' debate, February 2020.
Niall Carson/PA. All rights reserved.

Ireland still has a caretaker government following an inconclusive general election on 08 February. That election ended the century-old duopoly of the centre-right Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael parties, who between them have led every Irish government since the foundation of the state a century ago, following the surge in support for the left-nationalist Sinn Féin party at the polls.

The three parties finished neck-and-neck with less than a quarter of the vote each, and with Sinn Féin narrowly winning the popular vote. The balance of support went to smaller parties and independents in Ireland’s increasingly fragmented political landscape, including to the Green Party, Labour, the Social Democrats, and the leftist Solidarity People Before Profit Alliance, in the 160-seat lower house (see table 1).

votes Ireland

Table 1: Irish general election results 2020

While any combination of three of the top four parties (Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, Fine Gael or the Greens) would sustain a majority, no obvious governing coalition emerged in the weeks after the election, given the red lines of each of the main parties. Government formation was expected to take months, with fresh elections a distinct possibility.

Coronavirus in Ireland

Talks were overtaken by events, as the first case of coronavirus in the country was recorded on 29 February, and the government initiated a nationwide lockdown from the 12 March. A quirk of the Irish leg of the crisis saw Taoiseach (prime minister) Leo Varadkar – a medical doctor by training – respond to his own government’s call for support by re-joining the medical register to work one shift a week to contribute to the country’s effort to tackle the pandemic.

On Friday 01 May, the Taoiseach announced a staggered lifting of the restrictions on movement and on economic and social activity. As the growth in the numbers of confirmed cases of coronavirus in the country began to fall, renewed attention turned to the lack of a permanent government.

Government negotiations

Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have refused to countenance governing with Sinn Féin, and have broken a century-old taboo by opening up the prospect of governing together. But even the parties’ combined seat share falls short of a majority, and they will require the support of at least one of the smaller parties or groups of independents to form a government.

While initially appearing reluctant, in early May, the leader of the Green Party, Eamon Ryan, held talks with the leaders of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, with a view to agreeing a timetable for negotiations, which have been ongoing.

Any coalition is expected to meet resistance from within the ranks of each of the parties. Many within Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil (the relics of opposing sides of the country’s Civil War a century ago) cannot bear the prospect of coalition with their historic rivals. The powerful rural wings of both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are deeply suspicious of the Greens, including the party’s red line commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 7% per year. One senior Fianna Fáil figure asserted that ‘Any move to include the Green Party and their urban-based and climate-centred agenda would further exacerbate the urban-rural divide and create further devastation’ to rural communities. Meanwhile many Fine Gael members were initially content with the prospect of consolidating on the opposition benches following a bruising election, and nearly ten years in government.

For their part, the Greens are deeply divided over the prospect of facilitating the return of the traditional parties to government, especially after the party’s last experience in office – when they lost all of their seats in the 2011 general election following their time in coalition with Fianna Fáil, when the parties agreed the country’s financial bailout with the Troika of the EU, ECB and IMF in 2010.

The potential involvement of independents or of another party might make the decision easier for the Greens, so as to prevent them from being the mudguard for the larger parties, but for many rank-and-file members, it may still prove too much.

Some within Fianna Fáil have called for a unity government involving the new three main parties, but for now the differences remain too stark for this to be likely. Meanwhile, Sinn Féin, who have not taken part in government formation talks, remain committed to leading an alternative left government. But this also seems unlikely based on the current Dáil arithmetic. The party will continue to consolidate support around that vision, and the putative parties of government may balk at the prospect of Sinn Féin settling in as the largest party in opposition.

The talks are now entering their final stages, with some expectation that a draft programme for government could emerge by the start of June. While it is impossible to predict if the next government will run its full course, in a novel turn, the role of Taoiseach is expected to rotate in the new government, with Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin leading in the first half of the new government’s five-year term and with Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar leading in the second.

All changed, changed utterly

While everything else pales in significance when compared to the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, this recent period still represents a seismic shift in Irish politics, with the previously unthinkable coming-together of the traditional rivals of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, who now seem almost certain to govern together.

As politics emerges from the initial pandemic blur, the triple challenges of the country’s political realignment, the coronavirus pandemic, and, let’s not forget, the protracted and ongoing withdrawal of the country’s nearest neighbour from the EU, is transforming Ireland’s traditionally relatively stable and predictable political landscape.

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