Noel Whelan: Coalition with Fine Gael looks like best option for Fianna Fáil

The party as likely to perform as well in the next election coming out of government as they are from opposition

The eternal question in Irish politics, what's the difference between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil? We try to make sense of it all. Hugh Linehan reports. Video: Enda O'Dowd

On October 20th, 1986, a remarkable political event took place in Israel. The prime minister and the foreign minister swapped jobs. What made it particularly remarkable was that the two men were the leaders of Israel's largest political parties.

The outcome of the 1984 Israeli election meant that neither the Likud party or the Labour party had sufficient numbers to make up a majority in the Knesset. After seven weeks, with a new election on the horizon, the two larger parties sat down for three days of non-stop negotiations and put together a finely balanced programme for government.

Under its terms Labour leader Shimon Peres was to serve as prime minister for the first half of the 50-month term, and Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir was to serve as deputy prime minister and foreign minister. In the second 25 months they would reverse roles.

Given the bitter ideological differences and intense political competition between the two parties, few Israeli commentators expected their powersharing arrangement to last more than a few months. The Likud-Labour coalition lasted until 1990.


There are no constitutional or practical reasons why a similar coalition, with or without a rotating taoiseach, couldn't happen in Ireland. The job swap, which proved possible for Likud and Labour in Israel in October 1986, could prove possible for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in October 2018.

If, as seems likely, today’s election delivers a result where a combination of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil is the only workable and sustainable majority for government, then anything is possible.

There are a number of factors that would make such a coalition easier in Ireland. There are no strong ideological differences between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. The Civil War fault line that has shaped our party system is in many ways an accident of timing in Irish history.

At the point in the early 20th century when first mass male suffrage and then mass female suffrage was introduced, the struggle between capital and labour was the dominant political division in most European countries, giving rise to the left-right party systems.

At the same time in Ireland, however, politics was dominated by the independence struggle. In the 1918 election, the political wing of the Irish revolutionary independence movement swept the boards in the parliamentary elections.

When a few years later that independence movement split over the terms of the Treaty, the party system severed accordingly, and the division in our system took hold, represented ultimately by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

Social issues

At various points since then Fianna Fáil and Cumann na nGaedheal/Fine Gael moved slightly left or right of each other on the economic spectrum and a little either side of each other on the liberal-conservative “social issues” spectrum.

The only truly definitive difference between them was on policy towards the North, almost all of which dissipated in the 1990s when consensus emerged around the peace process.

Over the last few decades the heat has also been taken out of political competition on social issues, a point illustrated most recently by the fact that both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were on the same side of the marriage referendum.

There are strong reasons why many in Fianna Fáil will argue that they should not go into government with Fine Gael, but most of these are selfish political reasons shaped either by concerns for the party’s prospects and/or fears about the rise of Sinn Féin.

If they go into coalition after this election, then Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will be more equally matched, not only in terms of seat numbers, but also in terms of government experience.

Fianna Fáil would also be entering government on the up, buoyed by a strong election campaign in which it increased its seats and in which its leader had attracted much public approval.


It would be defeatist for Fianna Fáil to believe that by going into government as the smaller party it would be somehow swallowed up by Fine Gael. That simplistic assumption does not withstand scrutiny.

To paraphrase the late Séamus Brennan, not only would Fianna Fáil be a coalition partner experienced at “playing hurling at senior level”, it is a former champion in the sport of government.

Fianna Fáil faces real challenges to sustain its recovery in the increasingly fragmented party system irrespective of whether it is in government or opposition.

It has a prospect of sharing government at a time when there will be resources to achieve policy objectives.

Fianna Fáil is as likely to perform as well in the next election coming out of government as it is from opposition

Tomorrow morning votes will be counted, over the weekend results will be declared, and in the weeks that follow the Rubicon will be crossed.