Government Formation: Reconciling Irreconcilables?

The noise that has emanated from politicians – past and present – and pundits about what the next government might look like has been difficult to make sense of in recent days.  Equally trenchant arguments have been made, on the one hand, that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will form a coalition and, on the other, that such a grand coalition is impossible.

Some have advocated for a minority Fine Gael government, supported from the opposition benches by Fianna Fáil.  And other potential governments involving one of the two largest parties with Sinn Féin, Labour, smaller parties and groupings and unaffiliated independents have been mooted.

As the saying goes, it’s all still to play for and could be for a while longer.  The Dáil is highly unlikely to elect a Taoiseach when it meets on Thursday.  As the public discourse and behind the scenes negotiations proceed – with a comparatively omnipresent media shining an unprecedentedly bright light on things – thoughts on what has happened and what could happen in the coming weeks and months follow.

First is that, in many ways, we are in uncharted waters.  The two largest parties, which once invariably commanded a huge percentage of the overall vote, now enjoy the support of roughly 50% of the electorate.  Internally, however, it would seem that some party members are in denial about the decline in their standing.  A lot of the wrangling by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is purposed in the main to “get one over” on the other and to develop a competitive edge as they believe we are headed inexorably for another general election in short order.

I suspect that the electorate will have very little time for this sort of partisan gamesmanship.  If both parties are perceived to be acting primarily in their own political best interests, and not in the country’s best interests, they will lose votes the next time they seek a mandate from the people.  Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, not other parties or groupings or independents, are far more likely to be blamed for the impasse in a second 2016 general election.  The parties’ memberships – particularly the Fianna Fáil faithful, who will have a say on government formation – will require no small amount of persuading on this front.

The counterpoint is that the two largest parties are financially better able to fight another election and that they will also benefit from a desire for stability.  This, in my view, fails to account sufficiently for the seismic shift away from them, as well as the reality that a substantial segment of the electorate endorsed “stability” by voting for Fine Gael.  In the event that instability instead results, they are unlikely to reward the party.  At the same time, if Fianna Fáil refuses to do business with Fine Gael, it will get some of the blame, too.  Another general election in 2016 could prove to be a real “Independents’ Day.”

Second, it is extraordinary that Irish Water remains to the fore in all of this.  Simon Coveney’s ill-judged comment to the effect that Fine Gael would be willing to negotiate on Irish Water set off a firestorm, with an enormous amount of subsequent media coverage dedicated to the “ins and outs” of what would happen if and when the controversial body is dissolved.  Angry people across the country, who have been paying water charges, have expressed extreme frustration that they might have been throwing money away and now vow not to pay anymore.

The universal social charge has been much more punitive than water charges, yet the USC has garnered a tiny fraction of the attention that has been paid to Irish Water.  It again goes to show that the proverbial straw really can break the camel’s back and that Irish Water, which is now on life support, was a tax too far.  Its merits and demerits aside, it is a terrible shame that so much time has been spent on water charges when there are infinitely more pressing matters that deserve to be highlighted and debated.

Third, two of the main reasons cited repeatedly as to why it would be a very bad idea for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to enter coalition just don’t add up.  It has been asserted that a coalition would lead to one of them being swallowed up and ceasing to exist as a party.

But the two parties are comparable in size (50 seats for Fine Gael to 44 seats for Fianna Fáil) and would have to divide ministries and powers nearly equally.  They could even attempt a rotating Taoiseach arrangement.  And if the ideological differences between the two are as real as their members who most resolutely oppose coalition insist, it is inconceivable that they could form a single, coherent political party.

The other reason posited is that Sinn Féin can’t be allowed to become the main opposition party because it would lead to the party’s being in government imminently.  This would be a more valid point if Sinn Féin had a better election.

Despite rhetoric from the party’s leading figures that they always aimed only for steady, sustainable growth, there is no doubt that they will be disappointed not to have taken more seats on February 26th.  It is notable that Sinn Féin did not have more support from those who are disenchanted with the system and/or struggling economically.

The vote tallies indicate that these men and women were just as likely, if not more likely, to vote for People before Profit/Anti-Austerity Alliance candidates or left-wing/locally focused independents.  It is also notable that these voters probably were not as put off by Gerry Adams’ leadership or the party’s former ties to the IRA as higher earners.

Sinn Féin would become the largest opposition party, but there are other parties, groupings and independents who would also be criticising a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil government from the ideological left and right.  Those on the opposition benches will be loud and diverse.  When this is coupled with the fact that Sinn Féin had a less than stellar election in a climate that would have seemed conducive to their success, fears about the role they might play and the surge in popularity they might get in opposition are overwrought.  Moreover, even its enemies have to admit that the party will almost surely wind up in government in the future anyway.

Finally, where will all of this lead?  A cogent argument has been made that a minority government is the ideal way forward.  Fianna Fáil would support Fine Gael on confidence and budget votes, but remain in opposition.  As such, both parties would have the best of both worlds.

Fine Gael would continue in government with some hope of redeeming itself, an awful election result notwithstanding.  Fianna Fáil would stand to benefit from any unpopular moves the government makes.  And it could determine the timing of the next election, when it would have a good chance to again become the largest party in the Dáil.  What’s more, Fine Gael’s having to operate from a minority position would give the Dáil, as the legislature, far greater capacity to act as a check on the executive.  Experts have referenced minority governments in other European countries that have actually worked quite well and, perhaps incongruously, provided a greater degree of stability.

While a minority government sounds good in theory – especially to those of us who have long bemoaned the impotence of the Dáil – I don’t think it will happen.

First, Fianna Fáil has always been a party of government and media reports at the time of writing that its TDs are getting a “smell of power” suggest that they, like their predecessors, want in.  Second, in Ireland in 2016, a minority government would be in a complicated and difficult space from day one.  Third, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil TDs understand that they won’t be thanked by the people if there is another campaign and election sooner rather than later.

Fourth, this coalition would be an actual partnership in a way that recent coalitions have not.  Fifth, external, pro-coalition pressure from a broad range of influential quarters is building and will help to force the hands of both parties.  Sixth, the reality is that these are two centrist parties who outsiders would struggle to distinguish.  More Irish people than ever before now don’t much care about their history and similarly discern little meaningful difference between them.

Above everything else, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil together have 94 seats and a clear overall majority.  An uncle of mine used to say that “politics is a numbers game in the end.  The numbers are the one thing in the business that never lie.”  I think he’s still right.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and regular contributor to Irish media outlets on politics, current affairs and law.  You can follow him on Twitter @LarryPDonnelly.

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