Opinion: There is a better way to form a Government than 50 days of chaos

The power-sharing model associated with post-conflict resolution can provide an alternative

Every four years or so, democracy involves a change of parliament. Five million citizens cannot negotiate a new Dáil; there would be chaos; so we have an election instead. The candidates campaign, the people cast their preferences, and it’s all very open and transparent.

Next, parliament chooses a government. Well, in today's multi-party Dáil, that's not so easy. We have had 50 days of closed and opaque discussions, and it's chaotic. It's the same in Spain, already 100 days without a government. It was worse in Iraq in 2010, when they took 249 days to form an administration. The world record goes to Belgium, where the wrangling lasted for 451 days.

Furthermore, when concocting a coalition, there is always the danger that a dodgy little tail may wag the bigger dog, like the right-wing Pim Fortuyn List party in the Netherlands in 2002. Occasionally, an even smaller "king-maker" – like the distinctly less dodgy Tony Gregory, TD – has the final say.

To avoid such parliamentary chaos, the obvious answer is to do what the public does: Vote. Let the Dáil elect the government. The appropriate methodology is the matrix vote: In order of preference, the TDs choose, not only who shall be in Cabinet but also, who shall be in which department.


This could be done between just two parties. If Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil (eventually) decided to form a grand coalition, then all the FG/FF TDs could use a matrix vote to appoint their 15 ministers. The system is proportional so, in all probability, Enda Kenny would become the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin the Tánaiste, and so on.


Another scenario would see the Dáil, in its entirety, elect an all-party Cabinet. There are 15 departments to be filled, and there is expertise among the TDs of every party and none. The matrix vote is the means by which all 158 TDs could come to a collective decision.

Of those jurisdictions which currently have all-party power-sharing, many former conflict zones have devised a formula. In Northern Ireland, for example, Ministers are appointed, in sequence, on the basis of the largest parties' numbers of seats. The Lebanese use a different rule, allocating certain positions – president, premier and speaker – according to the politicians' religions.

In Switzerland, the only peaceful country to adopt an all-party administration, parliament uses a "magic formula" to give the two biggest parties a couple of seats each on the seven-person Federal Council, and three smaller parties one each. Introduced in 1959, this "zauberformel" has worked quite well.

All-party power-sharing is also probably the only type of administration that could work in today's conflict zones of Libya and Syria. If only for their sakes, the Dáil should try to put such a polity into practice.

The future

How would it work in policy formation? Every policy decision would be dealt with separately, as would happen in a minority administration. For each debate, everything would be “on the table”, with a maximum of one option per party. After a debate, all remaining options would be placed on a ballot paper, and then TDs could cast their preferences in what is called a modified Borda count (MBC). This allows TDs to identify the option with their highest average preference. And an average, of course, involves every voting TD, not just a majority of them.

This MBC is more accurate and, ergo, more democratic than any majority vote. Majority rule, which was part of the problem in, for example, Northern Ireland and Ukraine, is out of date. In a modern multi-party democracy, in this sophisticated electronic age, binary voting is inadequate.

So yes, an all-party coalition based on a matrix vote election and MBC decision-making could work. It just needs public pressure and the political will.

Peter Emerson is director of the Belfast-based de Borda Institute ahd has worked in conflict zones including Northern Ireland, the Balkans and the Caucasus and. The institute takes its name from the French political scientist Jean-Charles de Borda, who developed a points system of voting, the basis of the matrix vote, in 1770.

The de Borda Institute, in association with The Irish Times, DCU and CiviQ, is hosting a public voting experiment at Ballymun Civic Centre on Saturday, April 23rd (9.30am-1.30 pm), exploring how a government of national unity might be elected, and whether such a power-sharing model is desirable. Members of the public are invited to participate, and can register to attend by emailing marketing@irishtimes.com, putting "Politics" in the subject line. See deborda.org