In 2016, government formation required 70 days of negotiation. However, following General Election 2020, it would be a mistake to assume that the electorate is sufficiently conditioned to interminable discussion and willing to be led by a caretaker government beyond Easter. In the national interest, there is an onus on the parties to be realistic about the coalition options available to them.
Capturing 130 votes in the secret ballot, Fianna Fáil’s Seán Ó Fearghaíl TD thwarted Denis Naughten TD of the Regional Group (a new technical group of independent deputies and Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín TD) who received 28 votes, to return as Ceann Comhairle of the 33rd Dáil.
At this juncture, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin have 37 TDs apiece, followed closely by Fine Gael with 35 seats. As widely anticipated, government formation now hinges on precarious Dáil arithmetic. Any cohesive and sustainable government will require a majority (80 TDs). This is difficult to achieve without two of the three largest parties.
Fianna Fáil’s poor performance in General Election 2020, following a sustained period of propping up a Fine Gael minority government through a confidence and supply arrangement, now serves as a lesson to those who may have considered a reverse agreement.
A grand coalition between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael poses a number of challenges to the respective parties. Firstly, beyond Dublin, Civil War politics continues to resonate across the country and with the centenary fast approaching, there is potential for discomfiture as the legacy of that understudied conflict is commemorated.
Secondly, while Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are unwilling to concede a place in government for Sinn Féin, neither are they willing to inadvertently facilitate Mary Lou McDonald becoming the leader of the opposition. Such a development would leave the hypothetical coalition exposed and generate significant political capital for its opponents.
Thirdly, the confidence and supply arrangement tethered Fianna Fáil to the Fine Gael government, to the extent that the policy differences between the two began to blur. While arguably this is conducive to a coherent programme for government, it poses something of an existential crisis for each party. The electoral space inhabited by the two parties has already contracted. If they do indeed form a government, they could become inextricably fused in the eyes of the electorate, provoking an identity crisis which spirals to the point that a merger becomes entirely logical.
This is the experience of grand coalitions in Europe, where the two opponents have eventually found themselves squeezed by the opposition. In Germany, for instance, after a 15 year period of governance (via several iterations of grand coalition), the country’s major parties – Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and the Social Democrats (SPD) – have slumped from a combined 69 per cent of the popular vote in 2005 to just 55 per cent in 2017 and are currently polling at 41 per cent.
Within Fianna Fáil, one prominent voice of opposition to such a collaboration is Éamon Ó Cuív TD. Speaking with RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta, he indicated: “The public voted for change, we said we weren’t going in with Fine Gael, we said we were for change, and that there was a need for a change of government… A minority in the parliamentary party were uncomfortable with this [potential] arrangement… significant people.”
Broadly, while there are some parliamentary party members within Fianna Fáil who evidently regard Sinn Féin as a more natural fit for coalition partner, there are two significant obstacles to such a formula: personality and policy.
Firstly, as leader Micheál Martin TD has consistently directed acerbic criticism at Sinn Féin, indicating a sincerely held aversion to that party. A volte-face while in situ would be so personally humiliating that it is almost beyond the realm of possibility. Crucially though, Martin is not alone in his stance and any such coalition arrangement must pass a vote by the membership at an ard fheis.
Secondly, though there is potential for some agreement on significant policy areas with a programme for government, such as housing and health; a major potential sticking point for both parties is fiscal policy. Martin has asserted: “The economic platform Sinn Féin put forward before the election was irreconcilable with Fianna Fáil’s, particularly on the enterprise agenda and also in terms of financial sustainability.”
At the same time, having watched its ‘formal policy partner’ in the North, the SDLP, assailed and forced to margins, Fianna Fáil is wary of the potential for its voter base to be further cannibalised if the party acquiesced to a coalition with Sinn Féin.
Speaking on RTÉ Radio One’s Morning Ireland the Sinn Féin housing spokesman, Eoin Ó Broin TD, while expressing a desire to form a government without either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael conceded: “On Tuesday morning the broad progressive left had 66 TDs and that is not enough for government.”
Regardless, a choreographed Catch-22 continues whereby Sinn Féin’s two nearest political rivals refuse to communicate, insisting instead that it must make use of its mandate to form a left-alliance government and enact its election promises. Indeed, indulging in a contradiction of the arithmetic, Mary Lou McDonald TD has said: “Sinn Féin wants to form a ‘government for change’ and… we will be intensifying our discussions with the Green Party, Social Democrats, Solidarity-People Before Profit, Independents4Change and independents to explore how we deliver a government.”
That being said, while arithmetically undesirable, there is a contemporary European precedent for an effective left-leaning minority government. In the Danish Folketing (parliament), no single party has an outright majority of the 179 seats.
After the June 2019 Danish general election, in which the Social Democrats secured 25.9 per cent of the popular vote, disagreement over immigration policy prompted a 20-day negotiation period (the longest since 1988). Consequently, the Social Democrats, with 48 seats, emerged as leader of a minority government, with stability reliant on the Social Liberal Party, the Socialist People’s Party and the Red–Green Alliance for formal parliamentary support.
It is difficult to predict the form that the next government will take, though it is hard to look beyond a combination comprising two of the big three.
The left-wing four party ‘red bloc’ has a combined 91 seats, surpassing the total of its right-wing counterpart (75 seats). While all cabinet positions in the Danish Government have been filled exclusively by the Social Democrats, a ‘political understanding’ document outlining an agreed series of shared principles has been signed by each of the ‘red bloc’ party leaders.
As yet, though it is only two seats behind each Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin, Fine Gael appears determined to retreat and convalesce in opposition. Certainly, among the party membership there appears to be significant resistance to coalition with Fianna Fáil. As yet, leader Leo Varadkar has not received a mandate from his parliamentary party to enter into coalition talks.
Likewise, the party’s TDs are adamant in their opposition to coalition with Sinn Féin, frequently echoing the remarks made by Taoiseach Varadkar who said: “The onus is on Sinn Féin as the lead party to honour its promises that it made to the Irish people, to form a government led by them, to get a socialist republican Programme for Government through the Dáil and it is their duty now to do that.”
Undoubtedly, the gulf between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin policy would be hard to reconcile in a programme for government, but there is still potential for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil – with some commonality in policy – to form a much rumoured ‘super grand coalition’ alongside the Green Party. That being said, the recent experience of minority coalition partners is enough to make the Greens think twice about their options in an effort to avoid becoming a ‘super mudguard’.
Ultimately, the options are not binary and it is difficult to predict the form that the next government will take, though it is hard to look beyond a combination comprising two of the big three. Currently, without the confidence of the Dáil, the caretaker Government cannot claim democratic legitimacy. The national interest dictates that this cannot continue indefinitely. Meanwhile potential for a second election lingers.