Ireland: coalition partner(s) wanted

Alessandro Calissi, T&P Junior Consultant
Updated on: February 17, 2020

It has been a momentous general election for Ireland. Political leaders and commentators have already described the vote of February 8th as an historic change for Ireland’s political system, putting an end to the centre to centre-right two-party system with an incredible result by the nationalist left – and IRA political arm’s heir – of Sinn Féin.

The final electoral outcome sees Sinn Féin as the most voted party, with 24,53% – it scored 13,8% in 2016 elections – followed by Fianna Fáil (22,18%) and Fine Gael (20,86%) – the party of incumbent PM Varadkar. Positive but limited results also for the Irish green party (7,13%) which will likely have a role to play at the moment of forming the new government.

It’s not (at) all about Brexit

Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s first gay Irish-Indian PM, was counting on the overall good management of the Brexit crisis, on his government’s liberal reforms on gay marriage and abortion, and on a well-performing economy to expand the traditional party-base and boost his chances for a second-term. Fine Gael however, lost almost 5% of the votes compared to 2016. Why? Faced with soaring costs of living, unaffordable rents, a booming homelessness crisis and an inefficient national health system, Irish voters, and especially the youngest ones, realised the benefits of Ireland’s macro-economic miracle were not being effectively re-distributed, regardless of Brexit success or advancements in civil rights. Similarly, other “post-materialist” political drivers failed to deliver concrete electoral advantages vis-à-vis socio-economic pressures, as the modest outcome of a “climate-change vote” for the green party revealed.

Conversely, Sinn Féin’s social spending promises and its proposal for a massive social housing plan helped expanding consensus beyond its traditional party base, and contributed in breaking the long-held taboo of voting for a political structure associated to a terrorist organisation. Under the leadership of Mary Lou McDonald, a former Fianna Fáil member who moved to Sinn Féin after the signature of the Good Friday Agreement, Irish voters felt that the time had come for Sinn Féin’s expansive economic and social affairs plans. Surely, the landmark objective of a united Ireland remains in the party’s DNA and current political agenda – especially considering potential Brexit-related developments in Northern Ireland – but its importance has been overshadowed by more pressing socioeconomic needs.

All considered, bread and butter issues and the desire for a change of pace in the traditional two-party alternation in government have arguably contributed to Varadkar’s unimpressive electoral results. However, it is still too early to definitely exclude Fine Gael from the future government coalition.

Coalition Math

Looking at the new distribution of the 160 seats of the Dáil Éireann, the Irish lower chamber, some may be surprised to see Sinn Féin in second position. Its 37 MPs posts are a consequence of the decision to field 42 candidates, about half that of both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, which in turn managed to gain 35 and 38 seats respectively. This situation has sparked lively political negotiations, with party leaders looking for partners strong enough to reach the “magic number” of 80 seats necessary to sustain a government.

Sinn Féin immeaditely announced its intention to form a governing coalition, but despite its excellent electoral results, the harsh law of arithmetic are playing against them. The potential support of the greens, smaller parties and independent candidates will not be sufficient for a governing majority: while McDonald’s insists on the possibility of a leftist minority government, the parliamentary weight of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael cannot be ignored.

Leo Varadkar’s Fine Gael made clear that a coalition with Sinn Féin is out of question and that it would lead the opposition against a government comprising the leftist nationalists; an understandable position given the two parties divergent economic views and political background. On the other hand, an attempt of coalition-making between the two “traditional” parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael could consolidate a 73 seats political base in the Dáil Éireann. Despite political similarities, the two parties have however clashed in the past, with a coalition proposal made by Fine Gael already failing after the 2016 elections. The respective stances toward Sinn Féin were also another point of friction during the electoral campaign, and Varadkar has recently reiterated that the party would only enter into a coalition government with Fianna Fáil as a ‘last resort’.

Leader of Fianna Fáil Micheál Martin, acknowledging Sinn Féin’s electoral surge, had initially softened his tone regarding possible political configurations for the future government. However, Fianna Fáil’s hostility toward the leftist nationalist remains strong and was a crucial element behind the decision to reject potential power-sharing solutions. Martin is aware that his party’s contribution will be necessary to whatever political combination wishes to reach the 80 seats goal. His original hopes relied on the exclusion of both Fine Gael and Sinn Féin from a Fianna Fáil-led coalition with the greens, the Labour party and other smaller parties. However, given the disappointing electoral outcome and the decision not to seek Sinn Féin’s support, Martin is now forced to go back knocking at Varadkar’s door.

“The IRA legacy still affects political elites’ assessment of Sinn Féin, but younger generations of Irish voters decided it was time to give it a chance ”

The tide is changing

Given the electoral triangle made of Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the respective past political histories with attached political vetoes, and the heated post-election debates, the few days remaining before the first parliamentary session of February 20th represent a tight deadline. Much will depend on the degree of compromise deemed acceptable by the Fianna Fáil’s and Fine Gael’s leadership and membership faced with the opportunity to grab the executive power. The two parties are trying to push Sinn Fèin in the corner, severely hindering its ambitions to government, but risking to miss out on the growing desire for change from mainstream politics. While the IRA legacy still affects political elites’ assessment of Sinn Féin, younger generations of Irish voters decided it was time to give it a chance. Surely, we can expect a heated first round of votes on PM nominees on Thursday, and the possibility of a second election cannot yet be ruled out.

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