Interesting times in Irish politics


Stephen Colbert

HISTORIC. The word is overused. But, in the case of the 2020 Irish General Election it is appropriate because longstanding rivals Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael along with the Green Party are in government together.

February’s ground-breaking General Election saw Sinn Féin win the most votes nationally which translated into 37 seats, an increase of 14 on the 2016.

Fianna Fáil despite losing six seats became the largest party in the Dáil by one seat while Fine Gael lost 15 seats and ended up third. The Green Party recorded their best ever election result, winning 12 seats.

Despite Sinn Fein’s ‘revolution in a ballot-box,’ they did not win an overall majority and were unable to build their preferred ‘coalition of the left.’ This impasse resulted in the unprecedented coalition of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael with the Greens.

Long time coming
The election resulted in a stalemate leaving the Dáil deadlocked. During the election campaign both main parties rejected the idea of going into government with Sinn Féin. As neither could muster sufficient support to lead a government they were left with few alternatives other than coalescing with one another and a smaller party.

Born out of Ireland’s struggle for independence, Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael has led every Irish government since 1927 but never governed together. Until now.

“I believe civil war politics ended a long time ago in our country, but today civil war politics ends in our parliament,” former Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, said.

That they are in government together many will feel creates a natural left-right split in Irish electoral politics. It also leaves Sinn Féin as the main opposition in the Dáil.

Despite condemning the coalition as an establishment stitch up, Sinn Féin know that they will be the main beneficiaries of it. Speaking to journalist Rodney Edwards for the Human Nature podcast, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald stated that it is now inevitable that she will be Ireland’s first female Taoiseach.

Nudge and Nurture
Even before the 2020 election, the Civil War division between the two formerly dominant parties had effectively ceased to be the most important chasm in Irish politics. It began to fade in the 1980s with the emergence of the Progressive Democrat party, which was created to breach civil war politics. The Tallaght Strategy in 1987, which laid the foundations for the Celtic Tiger, through to the confidence-and-supply agreement from 2016, has seen the two parties inching closer together as their electoral dominance waned.

It is remarkable that when you look at the persistent similarity of both parties’ policies why it took so long for the Civil War divisions to finally end.

The collapse of the Celtic Tiger, and the economic crisis that followed, hastened the decline of the big two parties. Irish party politics has completely realigned as a result. The PDs have disbanded, the Labour Party—the party of James Connolly and Jim Larkin is now a minor player and could disappear altogether. Instead of the Civil War, the most important dividing line in party politics is now perceived as being between left- and right-wing parties. While some people will welcome this as a natural divide, by increasing public investment, prioritising spending over tax cuts, advancing a socially liberal agenda, Fine Gael—with the support of Fianna Fáil since 2016—has governed like a centre-left social democratic party. The new programme for government seems to be a continuation of the same political ethos.

The three parties voted by large majorities to enter government. The deal, after several weeks of tortuous negotiations is high on aspirations but low on detail: Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin (above) will serve as Taoiseach until December 2022 when it will then revert to Leo Varadkar. It will be the first time a coalition will share the role of Taoiseach.

How well the two parties will work together in the midst of the global pandemic that finds Ireland heading towards another recession is anybody’s guess. The combination of Covid-19, a no-deal Brexit, a poor health service and a stubborn housing and homeless problem are challenges that would undermine even the strongest unitary government.

How will the public finances will be fixed after Covid-19? The programme for government parks this for now but makes a commitment to announce a plan in Budget 2021.

The Green influence is apparent too, such as the pledge to ban the sale of petrol and diesel cars from 2030. Additionally, 10 per cent of the transport capital budget will be used for cycling projects alongside a further 10 per cent for pedestrian infrastructure.

On housing—which was the stick that the opposition used so effectively to beat the last government with—there is a commitment to ensure the supply of housing increases to 35,000 homes annually and to increase the stock of social homes by 50,000 over five years.

Coalition between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is a risky venture. The rise of Sinn Féin has spooked the main parties. While Fine Gael and Fianna Fail refused to form a coalition with it because of its historical links to the IRA, they also worry that leaving it alone in the opposition will enable it to become more popular, at their expense.

The coalition between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is an important development in Irish politics. It could signal the end of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael as majority governing parties. If this trend continues then the next logical stage will be a government without either of them. Should that arise after the next election in 2025, then Sinn Fein will become the governing party in Ireland. A real possibility.

Stephen Colbert is a communications lecturer at New College in Lanarkshire, a runner, musician, political animal and father of one