Coalition: in good health or rotting from the bottom up?
What are the factors that keep coalition governments together – or drive them apart – and how does the current administration measure up?
THE BRITISH POLITICAL scientist Vernon Bogdanor said that coalition governments rot from the bottom up. If you apply his rule to Ireland’s shared administrations since the first interparty government, in the late 1940s, it’s hard to find an exception.
When coalitions lose out the bigger party suffers but the smaller party gets trounced. The Progressive Democrats seemed to buck the trend in 2002, but an increase in seats was merely a stay of execution, and the party was wiped out within a decade. Now the Greens might follow it into oblivion, after being annihilated in last year’s election.
In 1989 Albert Reynolds described the first Fianna Fáil-PD coalition as a “temporary little arrangement”. We have had coalitions for the past 23 years, but they are still temporary. No sooner are the nuptials announced than talk turns to the impending divorce.
This coalition’s spat over health cuts this week illustrated some of the imperfections of temporary arrangements: policy and ideological gaps, personality clashes and mistrust. But then, just as quickly, a reversal of the disability cuts was announced, showing how a compromise – or fudge – can be agreed on almost anything. So what factors determine the strength of coalitions, and how does the current administration measure up?
The relationship between the party leaders is crucial. A good one increases the chances of a government’s running its full term. In the 1990s, as Fianna Fáil leader, Reynolds had a poisonous relationship with Des O’Malley, the leader of the PDs, and their administration collapsed within a year. Reynolds’s coalition with Labour under Dick Spring fell apart after almost two years in an atmosphere of mutual suspicion. Bertie Ahern and Mary Harney were close; indeed, the economic outlooks of Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats were barely distinguishable during their time in power.
By contrast, the relationships between John Gormley, who led the Green Party into coalition with Fianna Fáil, and the bigger party’s former leaders Ahern and Brian Cowen, were testy. As Dan Boyle notes in his book Without Power or Glory, “We had mixed feelings about Brian Cowen taking over as taoiseach. We didn’t doubt his ability but he hardly seemed warm to the idea of being in government with the Greens.”
Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore get on well, and the first 18 months of government have been relatively harmonious. As well as participating in the Economic Management Council, they have a private meeting on Tuesdays, before the weekly Cabinet meeting, at which potential problems are sorted out.
A shared decision-making body
The Coalition’s Economic Management Council is a new idea. In some previous coalitions the smaller party learned to its cost that the Department of Finance was a more formidable foe than the bigger party. The agreement to split Finance in two, and the formation of the council, have had a big, mostly positive influence on the working of the Government.
With Kenny and Gilmore joining Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin on the council, it means that all the big economic decisions are shared and that there are no information gaps. A situation such as that in which Gormley was woken in the middle of the night to attend a Cabinet meeting on a bank guarantee he hadn’t been briefed on could not arise. There are downsides. Some TDs and Ministers believe the council makes all the big decisions in advance, with the Cabinet downgraded to rubber-stamping key economic decisions.