Noel Whelan: Don't pay attention to pre-election pledges about coalition

Nothing concentrates the minds of politicians like the fear of a further election. Next year will be no different.

After a month of negotiations a new Fianna Fail-Labour government was formed on January 12th, 1993, 48 days after the election. Photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times

After a month of negotiations a new Fianna Fail-Labour government was formed on January 12th, 1993, 48 days after the election. Photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times

 

In light of this week’s Irish Times poll it is worth remembering that a week is a long time in politics, and the weeks between an election and the formation of a government can be both long and dramatic.

After the election on June 15th, 1989, the outgoing taoiseach Charles Haughey was seven seats short of a Dáil majority. The Progressive Democrats, who had entered an election pact with Fine Gael, had six seats.

There was intense animosity between politicians of both parties. Most of the Progressive Democrat TDs had left or had been forced out of Fianna Fáil because of Haughey’s leadership. When asked about the loss by the Progressive Democrats of more than half their seats in the election, Fianna Fáil minister Ray Burke commented gleefully: “It couldn’t have happened to a nicer bunch of people.”

In the days after the election one of the Progressive Democrat TDs Pearse Wyse was adamant, “in no circumstances could I bring myself to vote for [Haughey] as taoiseach”. Four weeks later he was to do just that.

The new Dáil met for the first time on June 29th, 1989. Haughey, the Fine Gael leader Alan Dukes and the Labour Party leader Dick Spring were each nominated for taoiseach and defeated. The PDs voted for Dukes in accordance with their pre-election pact but, as their leader Des O’Malley later wrote, “with that vote concluded we were free to act in whatever way we thought best for the country”.

Constitutional tussle

This was the first time that the Dáil failed to elect a taoiseach at its first sitting. The lack of precedent even led to a brief constitutional tussle. Spring said that in light of the vote Haughey had to resign as taoiseach.

Haughey refused, taking a strictly legal view that he could stay in office until a new taoiseach was elected. The Dáil adjourned in crisis for two hours. Then Haughey resigned but continued as acting taoiseach and the Dáil adjourned for four days with little prospect of a new government in sight.

Two days later Haughey went on the This Week radio programme and firmly ruled out any possibility of Fianna Fáil going into coalition.

Worst nightmare

On July 3rd the Dáil met again, nothing happened, and it adjourned until July 6th. TDs of all parties were now faced with their worst nightmare. There seemed to be a real possibility of another election within weeks.

On the evening of July 4th, Fianna Fáil minister Pádraig Flynn appeared on TV and radio loudly opposing any coalition deal, saying “the national executive, the parliamentary party and the grass roots have indicated [that] this is a core value which we must preserve”.

On July 5th, Bertie Ahern, acting he later wrote “on Charlie’s instructions”, did an interview on the News at One saying for the first time that Fianna Fáil was prepared to consider a coalition.

Coalition negotiations between Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats began the following day, and on July 12th the recently sworn enemies joined together in cabinet. They stayed together, if not always harmoniously, for almost 3½ years.

The next election was held on November 25th, 1992. Fianna Fáil, led by taoiseach Albert Reynolds, returned with just 68 seats. This was 15 seats short of a majority. Labour had 33 seats.

The Dáil was due to meet two weeks later, and everyone expected that Fine Gael and Labour would form a “rainbow” coalition with either the Progressive Democrats or the Democratic Left or both. The animosity between Fianna Fáil and Labour in the previous Dáil had been particularly intense. At one stage Spring had characterised Haughey as a “cancer that is eating away at our body politic”.

Labour spent the first two weeks after the 1992 election teasing out coalition prospects with the other parties. When these efforts did not go well Spring met Reynolds for exploratory talks on December 13th, 1992.

Defeated

On December 14th, the Dáil met for the first time after the election. Reynolds, John Bruton and Spring were each nominated for taoiseach and were defeated and the Dáil adjourned.

After a month of negotiations a new Fianna Fail-Labour government was formed on January 12th, 1993, 48 days after the election.

When the current Dáil is dissolved and a date is set for a general election the law requires that a date must also be set for the first meeting of the next Dáil.

There is no guarantee, however, that a new government will be elected on that day.

A lot can happen in the weeks after an election. Firm pledges not to go into government made before polling day are often cast aside after it. Old animosities and even recent antagonisms are quickly overcome. The country needs a government. Nothing concentrates the minds of politicians like the fear of a further election. Next year will be no different.

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