JEFF KILDEA. The Irish Elections of 2020 – still no government

Almost four months after the Irish general election on 8 February 2020 Ireland is still without a government. What’s been happening and who is running the shop during the Covid-19 crisis?

Following the poll, news reports around the world proclaimed an historic election result that had changed Ireland’s political landscape forever. Sinn Féin (SF), traditionally a fringe-dweller of politics in the Republic of Ireland, had received the highest number of first-preference votes, and with 37 seats in Dáil Éireann, the 160-seat lower house of the Irish parliament, was the second largest party.

The governing party, Fine Gael (FG), had won only 35 seats, while its main rival Fianna Fáil (FF) had picked up 38 seats. The remaining 50 seats were shared among 6 parties and 19 independents. Of the six parties, the Greens with 12 had the highest number of seats.

And so began the complex task of trying to form a government. After accounting for the speaker (who is a member of FF), a coalition requires 80 seats to command a majority.

For one of the three major parties to secure that majority without either of the other two, it would require a motley coalition of minor parties and independents that would be inherently unstable given the range of views across the political spectrum. Similarly, a minority government would face the prospect of indefinite uncertainty.

However, two of the major parties combined could form a majority government with (a) the Greens or (b) two of the smaller parties or (3) one of the smaller parties plus independents.

With both FF and FG signalling they would not enter a coalition with SF, it soon became apparent that absent a new election the only way forward was for traditional rivals FF and FG to team up. But could they agree to govern together? In the Australian context it would be like Labor and Liberal forming a coalition.

The prospect of a new election so soon after the last is daunting at the best of times, but during the Covid-19 lockdown it is particularly unpalatable. Conditions were right for such an unholy alliance.

In an article I wrote for Pearls and Irritations following the election, I recounted the history of the three main parties since the founding of the Irish state in 1922, indicating how they had emerged from opposing sides of the Irish Civil War. As a legacy of their origins, they have remained intense rivals for almost 100 years. Even so, over the decades, FF and FG have both become centre-right parties with little to distinguish them, apart from the long memories of their rank and file members. Meanwhile SF has become a party of the left, on top of its determination to see a united Ireland.

In the article, I wrote, ‘Yet, given the economic stances of the parties, it might be more logical for FF and FG to join forces in a centre-right government opposed by a centre-left opposition of SF, Labour and other left-leaning parties’. And, not long after, what was unthinkable before the elections began to look more and more likely as negotiators from the two rival parties met, and met again.

Then, on 15 April, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, on behalf of FG, and FF’s leader Micheál Martin signed off on a framework agreement for a coalition government. Despite rumblings from some MPs and constituency members from both parties, the deal was sealed. The unholy alliance was now a grand alliance of the civil war’s binary opposites.

When the document was released critics lambasted it for promising increased spending in a range of areas, including health, housing and a national living wage, while at the same time ruling out increases in income tax or the social security levy, as well as any cuts in welfare. In Australian terms the framework agreement was a recipe for the coveted magic pudding.

Cynics suggested it was designed that way to attract a partner or partners from the centre-left parties to provide the extra seats to form a majority government. Labour, with 6 seats, has so far resisted the bait. Labour has previously entered into coalitions with both FG and FF, but the experience has not always been good. They know too well that the junior partner in an ad hoc coalition tends to bear a disproportionate share of the odium when the government is later defeated at the polls.

The Greens too have felt the ire of their constituents after serving in government. In 2007 they joined a coalition led by FF, only to be be wiped out at the 2011 elections. However, they seem to have put that bad experience behind them, attracted by the framework agreement’s promise of a ‘New Green Deal’.

In response to an overture from the grand alliance, Green’s leader Eamon Ryan put forward a shopping list of 17 demands, including a commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 7 per cent each year, up from the current 3 per cent. The grand alliance replied, ‘They are doable’. The magic pudding had just got bigger.

To further entice the Greens to enter into negotiations, Varadkar and Martin offered Ryan a commitment to introduce within the first 100 days of a new government a climate bill to enshrine in law a target of carbon neutrality by 2050.

In early May the Greens parliamentary party voted 8 to 4 to begin the talks. But they warned they would walk away if the negotiations did not yield ‘transformative’ change on climate action.

After more than three weeks the talks have not concluded, but nor have they broken down. But, even if the negotiating teams can reach agreement, the deal will have to be ratified by their party memberships. And that might present problems.

Many supporters of each of the three parties oppose a coalition: Green supporters fear the two big parties will not deliver the new green deal; FF and FG supporters, particularly in rural areas, fear they will.

John Halligan, a minister in the FG government, who did not recontest his seat but is constitutionally obliged to continue in office, told the national broadcaster, RTÉ: ‘If you want my honest opinion … Fianna Fáil canʼt stand Fine Gael essentially and Fine Gael canʼt stand Fianna Fáil essentially, none of them can stand the Green Party so whatʼs this all about?’.

Some FG supporters are now promoting the idea of a new election, buoyed by recent opinion polls that show that FG has received a 15 point boost since the election, the benefit of incumbency during the Covid-19 crisis.

In my earlier article I wrote, ‘Perhaps, after almost 100 years, the time has finally arrived when we can declare the Irish Civil War to be over’. Nearly four months on, we are still waiting to see if that time has in fact arrived. Meanwhile, during the country’s worst public health crisis, FG continues to govern in a caretaker role.

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Dr Jeff Kildea is an Adjunct Professor in Irish Studies at the University of New South Wales and an historian of early 20th-century Australia.

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