Parties eye up partners for next general election

Opinion: A Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil coalition or a Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin one would provide stable government, but would have downsides

Party leaders at an inter-denominational service of prayer for the assembly of the 31st Dáil. A grand coalition involving Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil or a coalition involving Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin would be radical departures

Party leaders at an inter-denominational service of prayer for the assembly of the 31st Dáil. A grand coalition involving Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil or a coalition involving Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin would be radical departures

Mon, Jun 2, 2014, 01:00

The Rubicon is the most-crossed river in Irish politics. Over the course of almost a century of independent democracy in the State, most fixed conceptions have become unfixed and most inconceivable arrangements have become conceivable.

The two-party hegemony has been eroded to accommodate coalitions, inter-party governments and a Rainbow spanning right and left.

Fianna Fáil has changed from being a party of single government to one that embraced coalition arrangements with the Progressive Democrats, the Labour Party and the Greens.

After an election it becomes a numbers game. For a party that wants to get into government it means getting the magic number of votes required (79 in the next Dáil). That numbers game has involved mergers when there have been Grand Canyon gaps between the dispositions of each party.

Back in 1992 most Fianna Fáil TDs opposed going into government with Labour but the numbers dictated it and it happened. Since the early 1980s government-forming possibilities have become more complex. It has been compounded by the substantial increase in Independent representation in recent years.

All the signs are that the number of non-party TDs and TDs attached to micro-parties could be in the mid- to high-20s. The 2011 election has left in its wake turbulent waters that will provide real headaches at the time of the next election. And the ongoing volatility in Irish political life will not have resolved itself in the 18 months before the next poll.

As a rule local elections are a poor guide to general elections. However, given the proximity of the next election, the following can be said with some degree of confidence. Both Fine Gael and Labour will lose seats. Perhaps the election of a new leader in Labour will help stem its losses, but only partially. The situation for both parties will not be helped by the reduction by eight in the number of Dáil seats from 166 to 158. Government TDs will be the losers in at least seven of the seats being extinguished.

Political instability

It all reinforces the widespread view among TDs that the next election may provide a scenario reminiscent of Italian politics with all the ingredients for a period of political instability. That said, some of the most sticky Irish governments have been minority ones shored up by a handful of Independents. And some of the most vulnerable have been those with a massive majority – the 1977 Fianna Fáil government and the Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition of 1992 come to mind.

On a good day Fine Gael could still manage to hold on to 60-plus deputies, but Labour could fall to 15 or below. Fianna Fáil will undoubtedly recover but – based on the available evidence, it won’t be higher than the very low 40s. There’s no doubt that Sinn Féin will increase its tally – certainly into the 20s or mid-20s. The number of TDs from small left-wing parties or who are nonaligned will also increase to the 20s.

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