Coalitions; How to keep one crowd honest & the other crowd out

Coalitions are the talk of the town at the moment in the Irish general election. It’s little wonder seeing as the current government is certain to lose the massive 53 seat majority that it won at the 2011 general election.

According to Professor Michael Marsh’s poll of polls the current state of play in terms of seats is this;

 

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This pretty much means all bets are off in terms of forming a government as only Fianna Fail and Fine Gael form the only stable majority. However, with the Fianna Fail vote improving in the last week, it is extremely unlikely that the party will want to cede the momentum it has gained in this campaign by going into government.

Likewise Sinn Fein will not likely want to go into government. If the polls are accurate, then the party is set to come in terms of seats in the low twenties which is below the thirty seats that some had projected they would get a few months ago. Nor will the party likely rush to an election as they have an Ard Fheis due for the end of April and the Assembly elections on May 5th to fight.

The only other scenario is either Fine Gael/Labour to bring the Social Democrats into the coalition and form confidence & supply agreements with the Independent Alliance and Greens. This would be unstable but could give all the parties some breathing space before rushing to another election.

Former speechwriter for Bertie Ahern, Brian Murphy reflects on how his former Taoiseach ensured he always had wiggle room for new bed fellows in the lead up to the 2007 election;

I was surprised when Ahern instructed me to heavily focus on the environment in drafting his opening address for the pre-election Fianna Fáil ard fheis. This was hardly the traditional fare for such a speech and I expressed concerns that the taoiseach might not connect with the delegates.

Bertie told me he was less worried about those in the hall and more interested in sending a message to the Green Party. He told me that he and Seamus Brennan had been crunching the numbers and they were convinced that Fianna Fáil would need the Greens after the election.

Ahern’s speech commenced with the key commitment that there was “no greater challenge for our country and the world than protecting our environment and dealing urgently with the challenge of climate change”.

Throughout the subsequent election, Ahern was careful not to say anything that would exclude the Greens from his post-election permutations. His Green counterpart, Trevor Sargent, took a different approach. He attacked the Taoiseach relentlessly, even describing Ahern as a ‘dead man walking’.

In the aftermath of the election, Green Party members voted overwhelmingly at a special conference to go into government with Fianna Fáil. At the same time, Trevor Sargent resigned as Green leader to honour his pre-election pledge that he would not lead the party into government with Fianna Fáil.

Perhaps something similar can happen this time?

I think Enda will be too weak to settle members of his party, unhappy with a shabby campaign and Martin with an enlarged parliamentary party will find the prospect of becoming Taoiseach too alluring to contemplate becoming a second fiddle to a Fine Gael leader whose future is uncertain. Also not forgetting that unlike before, a coalition must be approved by Fianna Fail Ard Fheis beforehand and it would likely split the party.

An old political hand in the South once told me that “coalitions are about keeping one set of bast**ds honest and keeping the other bast**ds out”

However due to the fractured nature of the Dail and the rise of independents that problem seems to be taking care of itself as disparate groups struggle to form viable governing blocs.

Like an EU referendum giving a ‘wrong answer’ the Irish people may well have to go back to the polls again in a short space of time if they want a government that can last.

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