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 leaders

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.



The composition of the Cabinet is important. An ideological gap, controversial figures or even mavericks can lead to division and sometimes precipitate crises. Strong personalities can cause clashes. James Reilly of Fine Gael and Joan Burton of Labour have raised the hackles of their coalition partners a number of times, and Reilly’s difficult working relationship with Minister of State for Primary Care Róisín Shortall has caused difficulties.

In 1981 the Fine Gael-Labour coalition collapsed when John Bruton, as minister for finance, tried to tax children’s shoes. Prominent Fianna Fáil ministers, such as Ray Burke, John O’Donoghue and Willie O’Dea, resigned when their staying-on would have imperilled coalitions.

Portfolios are also important. The PDs relinquished their economic portfolio and the Greens never had one, and both parties’ influence waned as a result.



The backbenches present complex challenges. The party’s footsoldiers can include an anti-leadership rump, ambitious and impatient young TDs, partisans and ideologues who resent the influence of the other side, and deputies interested only in constituency issues. Backbench mutinies have not brought down a government in recent political history, but they have forced reversals of policies agreed by the Cabinet.

Now a small cohort of Fine Gael and Labour TDs are ever-ready to act as a moral conscience in public. In recent months the parties’ backbenchers have engaged in spats on the Croke Park agreement, abortion, income tax, social welfare and health cuts. Michael McDowell became a one-member Greek chorus for the PDs when the party was in coalition with Fianna Fáil from 1989. Dan Boyle did the same for the Greens after 2007.

The weekly parliamentary-party meetings are important sounding boards. Labour has made big efforts to ensure its TDs do not feel Ministers are remote.


Comparative strength

There is only one outcome when there is one large party and a tiny partner: a sad one. Dan Boyle’s book lists several policy areas in which the Greens lost out, from climate change to income tax. Labour has been helped by its being the second-largest party – and it has portrayed itself as an equal. But size isn’t always a guarantee of longevity: Labour was very strong in 1992, but that created tensions for Fianna Fáil. In 1992 an exasperated Noel Dempsey told Seán Duignan, “It’s important that Labour realise we are still the majority party and we are not going to be pushed around.” Still, size matters.


Agreed policy

The programme for government is crucial at formation stage. Each party gets its own principal policy goals in and compromises on others. When there is no agreement, there is a fudge or an issue is parked; abortion is a good example. Implementing the programme is always a good weathervane of the relative influence of each party.

The Government’s record so far is good, reflecting the strength of both parties.


Policy differences

These include foreseeable and unforeseeable events, but the effect is the same: they create rifts and place question marks over the survival of the coalition. When they spill into the public domain they can be deal-breakers. The fault line is most manifest on the backbenches, as with the furore about HSE cuts this week. In the run-up to the budget expect rows about social welfare, income tax and Croke Park. Abortion could drive a wedge between the parties.


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