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Edging closer to a new Government in Ireland

by Frank Schnittger Wed May 4th, 2016 at 01:30:38 PM EST

The two major parties in Ireland, Fine Gael (25% support at last election) and Fianna Fail (24%) have finally, after over two months, come to an agreement which will allow Fine Gael to form a minority government with the support of a handful of independent or small party members of parliament. The agreement stipulates that Fianna Fail will abstain on major confidence and financial votes in the Dail (Irish Parliament) for roughly the next three years but retains the right to vote down or introduce legislation on other matters. Such an arrangement became unavoidable when Sinn Fein, Labour and the Anti-Austerity Alliance/People before profit parties all refused to coalesce with either Fine Gael or Fianna Fail.

The agreement is characterised as "A Confidence and Supply Arrangement for a Fine Gael-Led Government" rather than as a full programme for Government to avoid Fianna Fail being charged with breaking their election promise of never entering a coalition with Fine Gael. I have described this aversion to a joint coalition government as the narcissism of minor difference because of the lack of clear ideological differences between the two dominant centre right parties in Ireland. Both parties have been suffering a long term decline in their share of the vote, and together have gained less than 50% of the vote for the first time in last February's elections.

With Fianna Fail abstaining, Fine Gael require at least another 7 votes in Parliament to attain a bare plurality. They are currently negotiating with a number of independents to gain their support and will add those agreements to the "Confidence and Supply Arrangement" to create an overall programme for government. They may also have to offer the independents some ministerial appointments in order to gain their support. This may not be a bad thing as Fine Gael, with only 50 TDs (members of Parliament), does not have an overly large talent pool to form a government by themselves.

The whole process has been driven by a fear that, without agreement, there would have been no alternative but another general election (as in Spain) forcing all TDs to face an increasingly impatient electorate poised to punish any party they deemed responsible for the impasse.

Fianna Fail have thus avoided the poisoned chalice of breaking an electoral promise, being the smaller partner in a coalition government (which generally gets hammered at the next election), and handing over the role of leadership of the opposition to Sinn Fein. Nevertheless it is a very awkward compromise for them.  Sinn Fein and other left-wing opposition parties will lose no opportunity to lambaste them for being complicit in every unpopular decision the government makes. Fianna Fail could gain all the opprobrium for such decisions, whilst gaining no credit for any successes the Fine Gael Led government might achieve.

Fine Gael have also had to make some awkward compromises to achieve agreement, chiefly on suspending water charges pending a review by an "expert commission" and further parliamentary votes. This has particularly embittered their former coalition partners, the Labour Party, which was devastated partly because of their support for those charges, losing 30 of their 37 seats.

However Fianna Fail had to extract some kind of symbolic gains for it's unprecedented tolerance of a Fine Gael led government, and discomfiting the rump Labour party merely consolidates it's lead over a potential competitor in opposition.  As noted by fjallstrom the water charges fiasco has become a proxy for anger at austerity in general, and the single issue most dividing the former Governing parties - Fine Gael and Labour, from the rest.

The rest of the opposition parties will rail at the inconsistencies of the new government position, whilst privately being delighted that a new general election has been avoided. Their failure to make any serious attempt to assist in the formation of a government could have left them very exposed to the anger of an electorate getting very tired of the whole charade.

It remains to be seen what precise concessions independents will  receive in return for supporting a Fine Gael led government.  Some campaigned on purely local issues such as the upgrade of their local hospital services (or restoration of previous cuts). Katherine Zappone a noted LGBT campaigner, has already indicated her support for a Fine Gael led government in return to a package of increased child care supports. Michael Lowry, a disgraced former Fine Gael Minister has also indicated his support - to the embarrassment of some in Fine Gael.

The electorate at large will not be pleased if the emerging government is seen to have reached agreements which unfairly advantage some sectors or parts of the country at the expense of others.  But that is what you get if you elect a large number of independent TDs primarily focused on delivering a bag of goodies back to their own constituency.

Despite gaining only 25% of the first preference vote, Fine Gael has emerged as the only party willing and able to form a government, with most others focused primarily on opposition or local issues. You can protest all you like, but the last election almost failed to deliver any sort of government to protest against. It remains to be seen how long it will be able to last, with public sector and transport workers primed to strike to recover losses suffered during the recession, or to achieve big increases in pay. We may be in for a long winter of our discontent.


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