Serving in coalition government can be bad for junior partner’s health

Perception is they should keep others in check rather than pursuing own policy agenda

The numbers are being crunched. Decisions have to be made. And one of the major questions for the political parties will be: is serving in a coalition government bad for your political health and ultimate survival?

Irish political history shows that government can be tough on the larger parties but it can be lethal for junior members of a coalition.

Former Green Party TD and senator Dan Boyle wrote a book, Without Power or Glory, about the Greens' time in coalition government with Fianna Fáil, after which all six of its TDs lost their seats in 2011.

“The idea is that, rather than being an effective party of government people look at the junior partner in a coalition as the moral watchdog, which shouldn’t be the case at all,” Mr Boyle said. “It should be about policy and implementation.”


But the problematic perception is that “you’re there to keep the others in check rather than pursuing your own policy agenda”.

Dr Conor Little of the University of Limerick explains: "Basically, junior partners' public image gets polluted by their senior partners." The lecturer in the department of politics and public administration says research shows "one of the reasons why the junior partner gets a hammering [is] because it loses its identity in the eyes of the public".

Dr Little says: “We’ve had a series of really volatile elections. People have been moving around between parties and if voting is partly about the habit of voting for a particular party, then a lot of people’s habits are broken now.”

He adds: “The habit of people voting for Fianna Fáil is broken since 2011 and the habit of voting for Labour and Fine Gael in the last couple of elections is broken.

‘Volatile mix’

“People are peeled away from their old partisan loyalties and that’s what whoever goes into government will be facing next time around, a very volatile mix.”

He says it would probably be particularly risky for for Sinn Féin and the Greens if they go into government because they have a lot of first-time voters on board and “lot of their voters haven’t formed the habit yet” of voting consistently for them.

In 1997, when the rainbow coalition of Fine Gael, Labour and Democratic Left ended, Labour lost 15 of its 30 seats and Democratic Left lost two of its six seats.

In 2007, the Progressive Democrats lost six of their eight seats and the party shut up shop in 2008. The 2011 election wiped out the Greens’ TDs, temporarily, and in 2016 Labour went from 37 to seven seats after its coalition with Fine Gael.

Election 2020 has been Fine Gael’s worst election since 1948, down 4.7 per cent on 2016 losing 12 seats from 47 to 35.

But according to research, Irish governments always get punished more than the international trend.

In countries such as Denmark, the government might lose a percentage point or two in their vote share when going for re-election, but in Ireland they lose between 4 and 5 percentage points.

Fianna Fáil has gone in this election from 44 seats to 38, including the Ceann Comhairle who was automatically returned to the Dáil, marking a drop of 2.1 per cent on 2016.

Academic view

Confidence and supply is perceived as a failure, given the Fianna Fáil view that the electorate did not appreciate that it was doing the right thing.

But the academic view is a little different. Scandinavian political culture, for example, is more like new politics with consensus building.

Dr Little points out that “we’re going through a very volatile time in electoral terms and maybe the next experiment with confidence and supply will work out okay. Or maybe it works out okay with smaller parties but not a big party like Fianna Fáil.”

In Ireland, Independents who support a minority government, but do not take up office, seem to fair relatively well.

Research by Liam Weeks of UCC in his book Independents and the Irish Party System shows that three-quarters of Independents who supported a minority government and who later ran in competitive elections retained their seat.

It is only slightly lower than other Independents (who did not support a minority government) where 80 per cent retained their seats.

Independents who have supported the Government, including Michael Lowry and Noel Grealish, were comfortably re-elected.

However, the Independent Alliance had gone into Government as a junior partner alliance. Two Ministers retired while Shane Ross and Kevin “Boxer” Moran, who went for re-election, lost their seats. Independent Minister for Children Katherine Zappone also lost hers.

Serious concern

Professor of politics at UCD David Farrell said that for the smaller parties, going into government is a serious concern. Power matters more to the larger parties than it might for some of the others and the question of how they might be punished in three, four or five years' time would not be as much of an issue.

“In the case of Fianna Fáil, it’s hardwired into them to be in power and of course they’re saying what they’re saying right now, but that’s as much to do with internal dynamics in terms of the leadership of Fianna Fáil as much as anything else.”

He adds that as they get deeper into the negotiations, he “would not be too surprised if the possibility of a government that might involve Fianna Fáil with one or other of the two big parties doesn’t come into play”.