There is a lot of talk about coalitions and minority governments going on these days since the Irish electorate gave a collective “huh?” to the main parties.
As I noted earlier there have now been the first talks between the Taoiseach and Fianna Fail leader about possibly forming some sort of grand coalition.
It has to happen some commentators say and it has surely been a long time coming, but I want to give a different perspective as to why I think this grand coalition, would be a very grand mistake for Fianna Fail.
Governing- It is often said that the people are arguing for a government. However this presumes that the average punter in the street gives Dail party games a second thought. As we have learned from our own experiences of fragile coalitions, life goes on, people still go to work and will only focus on the situation when they have to. This shouting is coming from the press corps, more than the public.
Policy not perks- The Fine Gael statement last night tells me two things; 1) they have essentially learned nothing from their defeat. What got the last government into trouble was thinking they could appoint their way out of trouble and buy off people with nice posts. That is essentially what Kenny is trying to do now.
2) Fianna Fail needs to show that this is not about posts, but policy. Irish Water, USC, Housing Crisis and Healthcare are the order of the day and before anything is entertained there needs to be real concessions from Fine Gael over these policies before anything is even remotely considered.
Stability- Is there a virtue in making a deal with a Fine Gael leader who is clearly going to be given his exit ticket sometime in the near future? Gordon Brown tried to offer a caretaker role for himself in 2010 and the Liberal Democrats quickly realised how unworkable that situation would be. Agreeing a deal with Kenny now will quickly become unworkable as others in the party will move to install a new leader in time for the next election.
Trust- Coalitions work essentially at the top; whether it was Cosgrave & Corish, Bruton & Spring or Ahern & Harney, if the two leaders don’t trust each other then it wont work. What a Fine Gael/Fianna Fail coalition will create is essentially two silo administrations competing with one another and open to division. Trying to play as one team will be incredibly difficult and a caretaker government now, is better than a bad government.
The German example- Remember in 2005 when Germany had a deadlocked election? Gerhard Schroeder, the outgoing SPD Chancellor, had negotiated a parity agreement with the CDU over cabinet posts and it looked like he had gained the upper hand over Angela Merkel. I don’t think I need to point out to you how that worked out at the next election.
A government can only have one Taoiseach at a time; Dick Spring was a very vocal Tánaiste during his tenure, but Reynolds & Bruton were still clearly the leaders of their respective administrations. There is some temptation to think that you can have some sort of parity agreement between the leaders. Only problem is that when somebody becomes Taoiseach, it is very hard to get any leader to voluntarily give it up.
Overall, coalitions should be about what is best for the country. The dynamics of a Fine Gael-Fianna Fail coalition to my mind are unstable and unworkable. Ireland doesn’t need a coalition for the sake of having a coalition, it needs a government that can chart a course for five years and implement a plan. Maybe these issues could be overcome, but Fianna Fail was given a mandate to put this government out of office. That mandate should be respected and if proper policy changes cannot be achieved, then it is up to the Irish people to pass judgement again. On February 26th, the electorate voted largely with their hearts, they cannot be surprised that Fianna Fail follow theirs in opposing a grand coalition with Fine Gael.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs