Habemus Taoiseach: Ireland has a new government at last

Jul 1, 2020

Last Friday evening, as white smoke wafted from the chimney above Ireland’s parliament building, Leinster House in Dublin, the Ceann Comhairle (Speaker) came out onto the steps and announced to the assembled throng in Kildare Street, ‘Habemus Taoiseach’ (We have a prime minister).

Soon after, the new Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, emerged onto the balcony above the exalting crowd and delivered the traditional address urbi et orbi.

None of that actually happened, of course. But an extravagant metaphor is warranted in this case, given that it has taken almost five excruciating months to form a new government following the February 8 elections for Dáil Éireann, the 160-seat lower house of the Irish parliament.

The delay was the result of the electors having cast their votes promiscuously rather than opting to give one party a majority or close to a majority of seats. The governing party, Fine Gael (FG), had won only 35 seats, while its traditional rival, Fianna Fáil (FF), had secured 38. Sinn Féin (SF), normally a political fringe-dweller in the Republic of Ireland, had picked up 37 seats. The remaining 50 seats were shared among six parties and 19 independents. Of the six parties, the Green Party (GP) with 12 had the highest number of seats.

That long-term political opponents, FG and FF, have entered into government together for the first time is of truly historical moment. As explained in an earlier article, they have been traditional rivals for almost 100 years.

Their enmity is a legacy of the Irish Civil War that broke out after Ireland’s War of Independence against British rule. From 1919 to 1921 the Irish, under the banner of SF, had fought a bitter campaign against the British government. A truce in July 1921 was followed by negotiations for a treaty that was signed in December and ratified the following month by a slim majority of representatives of the fledgling Dáil Éireann.

While the treaty conferred on Ireland the same degree of independence then enjoyed by Canada and Australia, it denied Ireland the full independence for which SF had fought. Led by Eamon De Valera, the anti-treaty minority walked out of the Dáil and five months later took up arms against the provisional government formed to implement the treaty.

The civil war lasted less than a year, but the bitterness of the fracture has influenced Irish politics to this day. FG and FF are the successors of the pro- and anti-treaty factions of SF, while modern-day SF represents the rump of the anti-treaty faction that split when De Valera decided to form FF and take his party into the Dáil.

Following the 2020 elections, the numbers were so tight that the only practical way to avoid a fresh election, undesirable at the best times but especially challenging during Covid-19, was for FG and FF to enter into coalition. Before the elections such an idea was unthinkable, even though, as centre-right parties, there is little in policy terms that separates them. That the two traditional rivals might then invite the left of centre, environmentalist party, GP, to join them in government added to the improbability of a successful outcome, as explained in my most recent article.

But extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, and, following six weeks of intense negotiation, the leaders and elected representatives of the three parties agreed on a Programme for Government that was put to their memberships for ratification. After a tense week of waiting, the results of the party ballots were announced on Friday night, with each party overwhelmingly supporting the programme: FG 80 per cent, FF 74 per cent, and GP 76 per cent. The result of the GP vote was the most eagerly awaited as the party’s rules require the approval of a two-thirds majority to enter a coalition.

The next day, 27 June, the Dáil met, not at Leinster House, but at the more Covid-appropriate National Convention Centre, to elect FF leader Micheál Martin as Taoiseach. Later in the day the Dáil approved the new cabinet. Adopting the metaphor of my previous article, the three-legged horse, Improbable Coalition, had cleared the final fence and gone on to win the National Hunt race.

Ironically, this momentous alliance between the two civil war parties occurred 98 years to the day when the provisional government deployed troops and artillery around the Four Courts, then occupied by anti-treaty rebels, in readiness for a bombardment early the next morning that would mark the beginning of the civil war.

Martin will hold office until 15 December 2022, when he will hand over to the leader of FG, currently Leo Varadkar, the former Taoiseach and now Tánaiste (deputy prime minister) in the new government.

Where to from here?

The government’s first challenge will be to maintain discipline within its constituent party rooms. In normal circumstances a governing party has fifteen cabinet positions to allocate among its supporters. Under the coalition agreement the spoils of office will be shared three ways, with FF and FG each receiving six portfolios and GP three. The disappointed ambition of those with expectations of high office will need to be carefully managed, particularly within FG where eight cabinet ministers from the former government have been relegated to the backbench.

If internal disruption can be avoided, the new government stands a good chance of a long honeymoon period. The Programme for Government is an aspirational document that if implemented in its entirety will deliver substantial benefits to the Irish people in terms of the environment, health care, education, housing, regional development, social security and welfare.

It is easy to be cynical about the Programme: it is ambitious, its language is waffly, it is largely un-costed, many of its aims are inconsistent, and it depends on a continuation of the current enthusiasm to implement it.

A case in point is the sine qua non of GP participation in the coalition, the target of an average 7 per cent per annum reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions from 2021 to 2030. This is a ten-year plan extending beyond the life of the current Dáil and one that is back-end loaded. In other words, the 7 per cent is an average figure to be achieved over the decade, with most of the reductions to be realised in the last few years. Achievement of this laudable goal will therefore depend on the goodwill of a government not bound by the present coalition agreement and perhaps with a different set of priorities.

Nevertheless, the programme is there in black and white as a yardstick against which this government’s performance can be judged by the voters. If the government lasts a full term it will have almost five years to implement it. Substantial progress will be rewarded, backsliding will be punished.

SF as the main opposition party will no doubt hold the government to account over those parts of the programme with which it agrees and will expose to the electorate the downside of those parts which it opposes. This will be good for the democratic process in Ireland.

As the party that received the highest number of first preference votes at the last election, SF will be keen to build on those numbers with a view to being able to call the shots on the formation of a new government after the next election, whether that be at the end of the current term in 2025 or earlier if the government falls apart in the meantime.

If the coalition holds together and FG and FF find the arrangement works well, they might come to the view that the issues that divided their grandparents are no longer relevant to 21st-century Ireland and that unity provides the best chance of ensuring their centre-right beliefs prevail over the left-of-centre ideology of SF, Labor and the Social Democrats.

Then we will be able to say that the Irish Civil War is over at last and that Ireland’s party system has aligned itself with most western democracies where politics is a contest between parties of the centre-left and the centre-right.

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