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Pat Leahy: Spectacular vindication for Eamon Ryan who coaxed and beseeched party over the line

Analysis: A government will be now formed with a reasonable shot at lasting a full term

The result is a spectacular vindication for Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, above. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

It was a close-run thing in the end – the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life, as the Duke of Wellington said after the Battle of Waterloo. There are Greens this morning who will feel they have been through a similar bloodbath. But like the Iron Duke, they won. And that is what matters. In this game, winner takes all.

Rarely has politics been faced with such a stark choice, a crossroads at which clear and far-reaching choices must be made. There was no fudging this one.

The path that will now be taken – the construction of a three-party coalition that includes the two old parties whose rivalry has hitherto defined Irish politics, and the step-change in climate action mandated and roadmapped by the programme for government – is as different as can be imagined from the path Irish politics would have followed had the deal been rejected.

If the Green “antis” had defeated the deal, it would have yanked the steering wheel of Irish politics out of the hands of the centrists, the moderates, the consensus-seekers; and a fierce struggle for it would have ensued.


Leo Varadkar has said that he intends to pay more attention to nurturing the organisation during the next government, perhaps assigning a special role to Eoghan Murphy

It would have resulted in a major political crisis this weekend, the probable resignation of two party leaders and a likely general election that would almost certainly have decimated at least two of the three parties that will now come together.

Instead, a government will be formed today that has a reasonable shot at lasting a full term. Once they enter coalition, the parties’ interests will be entirely served by remaining there and making a success of the endeavour. They must now hang together, as the old saying goes, or they will assuredly hang separately.

Comfortable margin

As expected, Fianna Fáil passed the proposal by a comfortable margin, the product of quietly assiduous work in recent weeks by party leader Micheál Martin and his negotiating team. The fact that TDs were told that their constituencies would be counted separately – showing the leadership exactly how hard they worked for the new government – no doubt concentrated minds among those seeking ministerial office.

In the event, the mass revolt against coalition with the old enemy among the grassroots organisation, predicted in some quarters, did not materialise. While a feature of Martin’s leadership has been a sometimes scratchy relationship with his parliamentary party – or parts of it, at least – he has perhaps paid more attention to his party grassroots. It has paid off.

The Fine Gael result was equally overwhelming. While the structure of the party’s electoral college meant that the result was never really in doubt given the dominance of the parliamentary party, the much tighter result among the party’s councillors shows there’s a chunk of the Fine Gael activist base that nurtures doubts about the deal.

Leo Varadkar has said that he intends to pay more attention to nurturing the organisation during the next government, perhaps assigning a special role to Eoghan Murphy. There is room for it.

Scrape through

With the Greens, it was expected to be much tighter. The pessimism among supporters of the deal following strong on-the-ground campaigning by the No side last weekend gradually gave way to a feeling among Green TDs and activists on both sides that the deal would scrape through. In the end, the opponents of the programme for government had some pungent criticisms of the deal – but they had no viable alternative.

In politics and in poker, something usually beats nothing. But rarely does it win by such a thumping margin: more than three quarters of Green members voted in favour, a victory significantly greater than anything envisaged by those inside and outside the party. It is a huge endorsement for the new coalition.

The result is firstly a spectacular vindication for Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, who coaxed, manoeuvred, argued and beseeched his party over the line. It was never really clear whether Ryan was simply ploughing on and hoping for the best, or whether he was working to a carefully calibrated and thought-out strategy designed to deliver power to his party on terms it would accept. Perhaps it still isn’t clear; only Ryan knows. But he didn’t get here by accident, that’s for sure.

Ryan’s first job will be to heal the divisions in his own party, which have become personalised, sharp and public in recent weeks. He could be forgiven for thinking there might be a few of his party members he could do without – and indeed some of them threatened to walk if the deal was agreed – but their presence will increase his leverage in government in the thousand scraps to come.

The public is much more interested in what the government does, rather than who is in it

There are troubles and trials ahead, without doubt, and soon, too. He will also face a leadership challenge from his deputy Catherine Martin in the coming weeks, a process that may rub salt in the wounds inflicted in recent weeks. The criticism of the opposition will be targeted at the Green benches more than at their partners. The compromises and disappointments of government begin tomorrow. But this result is a personal triumph of enormous magnitude for Ryan.

The phones of all three leaders will have buzzed all night with congratulations – but also with demands, pleas and imprecations for ministerial jobs. Cabinet speculation is at fever pitch around Leinster House as contenders and observers alike wonder who’s in, who’s out. This parlour game consumes the political class in inverse proportion to the interest of the public, who by and large have little interest in who fills what job.

The public is much more interested in what the government does, rather than who is in it. And that is how this government will ultimately be judged by the voters. The historic alliance between the two old rivals; the Greens, the novel third point of the triangle, and the fine-sounding words in the speeches today punctuating the ritual of the peaceful transfer of power which is the mark of democratic societies – all that will wash away before long.

The task of governing will remain. It has seldom seemed so daunting.