Coalition partnership settles down into grumpy middle-age

Big two may be uneasy allies but realising this circumstance is recognition of political reality

The rearrangement of Irish politics continues under the thick, barely translucent shroud of the pandemic.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are gradually figuring out that they are now on the same side. Their policy positions have been more or less the same for a long time – on the economy, the North, size of the State, the Irish centrist mix of social democracy and business friendliness, the overly deferential attitude to Ireland's many special interests. The cultural and historic differences that have separated them (important to them, less so to outsiders) are becoming less relevant.

This doesn’t mean that the bickering and briefing will stop. Any conversation with senior members of each party is usually garnished with a side order of deprecation of their partners; sometimes it is the main course. Being Coalition allies and electoral rivals is complicated, in fairness, and the ancestral voices are hardly stilled.

The Coalition may still be uncomfortable for some of them but they are realising it is a recognition of political reality. When Michael Ring castigated Stephen Donnelly (“foot in mouth disease!”) at the Fine Gael parliamentary party on Wednesday night he did not show his differences with Fianna Fáil TDs; he showed the opposite.


Look to the Seanad byelections for evidence of what Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael TDs really care about. Both parties co-operated to elect their candidates this week. As Harry McGee reported, just about everybody in the two parties voted for each other’s candidates in a secret ballot – something which didn’t happen last year when the Fianna Fáil candidate (Seán Ó Fearghaíl) was elected Ceann Comhairle, but the Fine Gael candidate (Fergus O’Dowd) didn’t get enough votes to become Leas-Cheann Comhairle. True, this is so far beyond the margins of what most people consider important to be barely visible to the naked eye – but it is a signal, amid the noise, that the parties know they have common interests.

The inevitable mid-life crisis will come when Fianna Fáil TDs move against their leader

The Coalition partnership is settling down into a sort of grumpy middle age -– occasionally irritable but tolerant of each other’s foibles; privately critical but publicly defensive of each other; broadly committed to the continuance of the shared enterprise, in part because of the consequences of splitting up.

The inevitable mid-life crisis will come when Fianna Fáil TDs move against their leader – a prospect which many of them now think is inevitable. In fact, some serious people in FF now say that a heave this summer is in prospect. I think that the public reaction to such a move, during a pandemic, would not be kind. If Fianna Fáil is currently the sick man of Irish politics, this would seem more akin to a death wish than a miracle cure. But such is the level of many TDs’ disenchantment that it can’t be ruled out.

What would Fine Gael do then? Jump for an election and try to cannibalise FF votes, I expect. That danger may stay the hand of Fianna Fáil TDs from regicide, at least until next year.

Perhaps the downsizing of Fianna Fáil has diminished the one true core value that the party has always observed above all others, the one that Fine Gael has learned from it: devotion to the attainment and exercise of power. I wonder, though. Coming to terms with the indignities of coalition is just the latest in a series of compromises that Fianna Fáil has made to retain its position at the centre of Irish politics. That position has never been under more pressure, but the two old parties haven’t been in government for a century by accident.

Social Democrats co-leader Roisin Shortall last week ruled out Labour's latest overture

If the old centrists are grudgingly accepting the commonality of their interests, there is no sign of the same thing happening on the left.

Social Democrats co-leader Roisin Shortall last week ruled out Labour’s latest overture about a merger, remarking caustically “that’s the only thing they seem to talk about”.

A merger, Shortall insisted, “just isn’t a runner, it’s not on”. Though she acknowledged the two parties’ similar policies, she insisted there were “cultural differences” which precluded a merger, including but not limited to Labour’s attitude to women, young people, and authority.

Last year I thought that logic and the forces of political gravity would push the Social Democrats and Labour together and that a merger could be a magnet for pulling in enough of the left independents to form a substantial natural ally for Sinn Féin and Greens and to raise the prospect of a left-wing government after the next general election. No sign of it yet, though.

Like the Seanad byelection, the Social Democrats’ bad-tempered rebuff to Labour is irrelevant to most people. But it tells us something bigger: that co-operation on the left remains largely non-existent. This will be a barrier to winning and wielding power.

Sinn Féin has studied the power politics and grassroots methods of Fianna Fáil and adopted them for the 21st century; its quite possibly illegal-voter database is evidence enough of that. But it won’t form a left-wing government on its own.

As the pandemic recedes, and the challenges of housing provision, deficit reduction, economic recovery and decarbonisation re-emerge to dominate politics again, a huge political opportunity will dawn for the left. Even senior figures in Government can see this.

One of the greatest advantages that the establishment parties enjoy is the determination of the left to fight itself

But fatigue with the status quo won’t deliver a left-wing government on its own. How do opposition parties convince voters that they should be in government? By acting and sounding like a government. By presenting a viable, worked out alternative. That requires unity, discipline, purpose and clarity about your future actions in government.

A common approach to these questions from the parties of the left seems as far away as ever. For now, one of the greatest advantages that the establishment parties enjoy is the determination of the left to fight itself. The more things change, the more they stay the same.