In Government or howling at the moon? Coalition politics in Ireland

We are fast approaching the next Irish general election and this one is likely to be a real squeaker in terms of which combinations win enough seats to form a stable government.

The latest polls show us a couple of things;

  1. Fine Gael (unless they fight a terrible campaign) will be the largest party.
  2. Sinn Fein will come third. The local elections showed the trend towards the party and it is very unlikely at this stage that Labour will over take Sinn Fein.
  3. Linking into my second point, Labour are in for an absolute hiding on election day and are facing a best case scenario of losing less than 25 seats.
  4. Fianna Fail will come second, however whether it is a narrow second place or strong second is still at issue.
  5. There should be A LOT more independents in the next Dáil.

Whilst it is difficult to project the number of seats that any party will win the NUIM academic, Adrian Kavanagh has given it a shot on basis of the last poll;

Should this be replicated in the election, the only viable two party coalition would be a Fine Gael-Fianna Fail government. Failing that you are into three party coalitions with combinations like Fine Gael-Sinn Fein and Labour getting to the magic number of 79 seats that is required for a majority.

There is much debate going on at the moment about who will do a deal with who. Sinn Fein has ruled out propping up Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, and likewise both of those parties have ruled out dealing with Sinn Fein. The only party that seems palatable to all three is Labour and they are set to suffer a heavy defeat.

Coalitions are a funny business in Irish politics. Charles Haughey ruled out dealing with the Progressive Democrats in 1989, John Bruton ruled out forming a government with the Democratic Left and Trevor Seargant ruled out forming a government with Fianna Fail. All of which they subsequently did.

It is easy to call each of these examples a broad sell out, but are they not just a case of realpolitik?

You go into an election with a certain premise in mind and the electorate return a parliament which destroys the coalition that you wanted to end up in, what do you do?

I am often reminded about PJ Mara recalling Haughey breaking Fianna Fail’s core value of single party government in 1989 where he said;

We had 77 seats, they (PDs) had 6, 83. Which do you prefer folks? Being in government or over on the other side howling at the moon and it was no brainer.

For all the talk we hear about “red lines” and “no go areas” for parties, we need to remember that for any professional party the key aim is being in government to put some of your ideas into practice.

There will be a lot of promises and ruling out this and that between now and polling day. But party strategists need to be careful that they don’t box themselves into such a corner that they cannot post-election create a pathway that leads them into government.

In the back of their minds they need to have the foresight to think the unthinkable. How you would sell such a deal and under what circumstances would you go into government.

Not all deals are possible, but if the polls stay as close as they are, it would a supreme act of political folly to sit there and think that your preferred coalition combination is the only option. In a very real sense coalitions are about making deals with un-natural bedfellows and working with people from different persuasions. I have never seen a Utopian coalition government where each party shared the same outlook. There will be differences and the clever political trick is how you sell those to your party and the wider electorate.

So, when you plan your post-election war-game have the following in mind

  1. Prepare for everything and rule out nothing in your mind.
  2. Pick your core policies and ensure you get them into the programme for government.
  3. Pick your negotiating team. This will be your dream team, there was a reason why Haughey picked Albert Reynolds and Bertie Ahern to do the deal with the Progressive Democrats in 1989, choose wisely in this regard.
  4. Jot down how you could sell this to your party base. Linking back to point one, think the unthinkable, if you’re a Fianna Failer or Shinner task yourself with attempting to sell a coalition with Fine Gael.
  5. It’s about more than the national interest-I know this is typically why minor parties say they go into government, but this line never works. Point 2 and 3 take care of this, if you have put enough thought into what you want and then put together the right team to get it for you then you will find it easier to sustain your electoral base.
  6. This is the most brutal aspect think about not just who you are going into government with, but also who you are keeping out due to your presence in a coalition.
  7. To put all of this bluntly coalitions are generally about keeping one crowd honest and keeping the other crowd out.

Ultimately the choice is yours, which do you prefer being in government or sitting on the opposition benches howling at moon?

 

 

David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs