by Frank Schnittger
Thu Feb 13th, 2020 at 02:39:14 PM EST
My highest probability expectation both before and after the Irish general election is that it is unlikely it will be possible to form a stable government from the configuration of parties the electorate have thrown up. It took 70 days to form a government in 2016 when Fine Gael had 50 seats, and that government was only possible because Fianna Fail, with 44 seats, agreed a "confidence and supply" arrangement with Fine Gael under which it would abstain on votes of confidence in order to allow a government to be formed.
It is generally agreed that the confidence and supply arrangement did Fianna Fail no favours with the electorate as it was unable to pose as a radical alternative to Fine Gael, having facilitated the broad thrust of Government policy over the past 4 years. Although Fine Gael were the biggest losers (-15 seats), Fianna Fail also lost 6 seats with Sinn Féin (+14) and the Greens (+10) the biggest beneficiaries.
The only other time a major opposition party has facilitated a government in office was in 1987, when then Fine Gael leader, Alan Dukes announced his "Tallaght Strategy" to facilitate a Fianna Fail government basically implementing Fine Gael policies. That, too, didn't end well for Fine Gael.
In general, there has been a pattern in Irish politics whereby the junior partners in any coalition government reap all the frustrations of the electorate while gaining little or no credit for any progress made, most famously in 2011 when the Labour party collapsed from 37 seats to 7 after having been the junior partner in a coalition with Fine Gael. It is hardly surprising therefore, that no party will be rushing to take on a junior role in or supporting a government led by another party.
The situation now is further complicated by the fact that the three major parties, Fianna Fail (38 seats), Sinn Fein (37) and Fine Gael (35) are so closely grouped together with no clear leader to take on the role of Taoiseach. Both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have said both before and after the election that they would not work with Sinn Fein (because of policy differences and that party's association with the IRA), but also insisted they would not support each other given their experience of "confidence and supply" in the past.
Sinn Féin Leader, Mary Lou McDonald, has made the initial move in trying to form a government by approaching the Greens, People before Profit, and the Labour party amid scepticism that she could ever cobble together a majority of 81 seats in the 160 seat chamber. Although there are a total of 87 non-Fianna Fail and Fine Gael deputies elected to the Dail, many of the independents are closely aligned with either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael and would not feel comfortable working with Sinn Féin - not to mention the historic enmity and rivalry between the left wing parties themselves, many of whom have said in the past they would not work with Sinn Féin because of its association with violence.
Leo Varadker has stated he hopes to become Leader of the Opposition and Fine Gael generally seem reconciled to losing office, given that the electorate issued a damning verdict on their performance to date. No doubt they are hoping utter mayhem and confusion will result, which could have the electorate flocking back to Fine Gael - "the party which founded the Irish State" if no government can be formed and another election is held in a few months time. They will come under huge pressure to support or a minority Fianna Fail government, however, as a quid pro quo for Fianna Fail facilitating the last Fine Gael led Government, and the electorate may take a dim view of them failing to help the formation of a government.
However the situation now is not directly analogous to the past 4 years. Fianna Fail only had to abstain to facilitate Fine Gael (plus some independents) having a working majority in the Dail, whereas a minority Fianna Fail administration would require all the Fine Gael votes plus some minor party or independent support to have a working majority. The obvious solution is a Fianna Fail lead coalition with Fine Gael plus a minor party or some independents, but that would be a nightmare scenario for Fine Gael for all the reasons cited above.
Not only would they have to play second fiddle to their historic rivals (and 1922/3 civil war opponents), but they would likely be decimated in any subsequent election. The left's wet dream in Ireland has always been to force Fianna Fail and Fine Gael into coalition together, expose the lack of policy difference between them, and make hay from the opposition benches. Ultimately there will only be room for one centre right party in Ireland, and Fine Gael, as the junior partner, would face oblivion, just as the Progressive Democrats did in 2011, when they, too, tried to occupy the centre right space.
I am surprised, therefore, that Fianna Fail leader, Micheal Martin, has not already offered this poisoned chalice to Fine Gael. He could sweeten the deal by offering Varadker the job of Taoiseach on a timeshare basis - two years each - and splitting cabinet posts equally. If nothing else, he could cast Varadker as the bad guy if he refuses to cooperate. At some point the electorate will lose patience with any party seen as obstructing the formation of a government. Besides, he has led Fianna Fail into three general elections and lost all three, and this is surely his last chance to become Taoiseach. The lack of leadership talent behind him in Fianna Fail is startling, however, And Fianna Fail have nowhere else to go.
So I suspect we are in for a game of political musical chairs for quite some time, with each party pretending to be positive about government formation, and eager for the others to take the fall. The music will stop, however, when the electorate loses patience or is asked to vote again, and it will be vital for each party not be seen as the cause of the impasse. But for now we are in for some months of Kabuki theatre.
There is also one more complicating factor. Had Sinn Fein run more candidates, they would probably ended up as clearly the largest party on 45 seats or so. The electorate have given them the largest mandate to lead the formation of a government, and may not take too kindly to their efforts being frustrated by the establishment old guard. They could well win an even bigger mandate in any election held any time soon, and the smaller parties, who did very well from Sinn Féin transfers in the absence of additional Sinn Féin candidates, will be very reluctant to go to the polls again any time soon.
So it is still possible that a Sinn Féin led left wing government will eventually be formed, facilitated perhaps by some dissident Fianna Fail support, but unable to carry out large parts of its policy agenda due to opposition by a fiscally conservative majority in the Dail. The name of that game will be to allow Sinn Féin to achieve office but not power, and hope that Sinn Féin will take the blame for failing to deliver on many of their more ambitious election promises.
But once again it is a dangerous game for all concerned bar Sinn Féin. The electorate might take a dim view of them not being allowed to enact their promised measures on housing and healthcare, in particular: the issues of most concern to the electorate. So the overall situation is remarkably fluid, replete with many possible scenarios, but also with very real risks for those with most to lose: The Irish political establishment is teetering on the brink of a historic failure, and a political revolution is now a distinct possibility.
Conservatives will view this prospect with alarm - drawing parallels with Hitler gaining power in Germany as head of a minority party. More sanguine observers, including leading Unionist commentator, Newton Emerson, have pointed out that Sinn Féin, once in office in N. Ireland, are not a radical party. However in northern Ireland their potential base is the entire nationalist population, while in the Republic their base is still only the 25% most disillusioned with the establishment. Sinn Féin, North and South may be quite different animals.
But they also have some of the most able politicians on the island, promoting genuinely progressive policies, and demonstrating a pragmatism, resilience and determination in overcoming severe obstacles. Whether in office or not, they are sure to have a profound influence on Irish politics in the next few years at least.