Pat Leahy: Coalition-making isn’t what it used to be

Big party dominance is over and replaced by a fractured, uncertain political landscape

Government formation, you’ll have noticed, is no longer so straightforward.  Pictured is Leinster House. Photograph: Alan Betson

Government formation, you’ll have noticed, is no longer so straightforward. Pictured is Leinster House. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

One week and 18 years ago, beyond excited and wearing a new suit I could scarcely afford, I first went to Leinster House as a young political reporter to cover the affairs of our national parliament and the government it was supposed to hold to account.

It was June 2002, in the wake of Bertie Ahern’s triumphant “Showtime” election, in which he narrowly missed out on an overall majority but comfortably won his second term as taoiseach at the head of a Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrat coalition. Ahern completely commanded the political landscape; Fianna Fáil’s hegemony seemed impregnable. In the chamber, the massed ranks of Fianna Fáil TDs brayed their political dominance and numerical superiority.

Now coalition-making is much more difficult, much more time-consuming. The process demands a set of skills and attitudes not necessary when the big parties ruled

Ahern had 81 seats in that Dáil; Fine Gael suffered a catastrophic defeat, dropping to 31 seats. There were breakthroughs for Sinn Féin (five) and the Greens (six). The Progressive Democrats doubled their seats from four to eight. There were 15 Independents, mostly constituency-focused centrists or gene poolers. The radical left was represented by Joe Higgins. And that was it.

The negotiations on the programme for government were more than a little self-congratulatory, and took only a few days. Participants later told me they stretched them out so they shouldn’t appear indecently short.

Five years later, a now embattled Ahern timorously faced the judgment of the electorate but again found it congenial. Fine Gael, under Enda Kenny, roared back but not at Fianna Fáil’s expense – instead it was the PDs and the Independents who suffered; and poor Higgins also lost out.

Coalition-making was again relatively straightforward, even with the novel participation of the Green Party. Three weeks after the general election, the votes of Fianna Fáil and Green TDs, along with the two remaining PDs, elected Ahern as taoiseach for the third time. In the Dáil chamber, the legion of the rearguard applauded thunderously.

The general election of 2011 ended that world of Fianna Fáil rule, but it did not change everything. Fine Gael and Labour pulled together a programme for government in a matter of days; “It is no exaggeration to say that we now face one of the darkest hours in the history of our independent State,” the introduction to that document warned ominously. The administration took power two weeks after the election. Government TDs occupied more than two-thirds of the Dáil benches.

Government formation, you’ll have noticed, is no longer so straightforward. The era of big party dominance is over, where the smaller coalition party got a few policy concessions, a few cabinet seats and – if really necessary – a smattering of suave ambiguities in the programme for government, and then let the big party get on with the business of running the country. Not anymore.

The supremacy of the big two is gone, almost certainly forever, replaced by a contested, fractured, uncertain political landscape.

The current Dáil has three medium-sized parties, with 35, 37 and 38 seats. The Greens have 12, Labour six and the Social Democrats six. The radical left group, People Before Profit-Solidarity (including Rise) have five TDs, and there are 21 Independents, including micro-parties such as Aontú. They, in turn, are divided into three broad groups – the rural Independent group, the regional Independent group and the rest of the Independents. (This is one of the reasons, apart from pointless prolixity, why the debates and leaders’ questions take so long: every group has to have its say.)

Of all the many differences between this Dáil and the boozier, red-faced, suit-and-tie parliament into which I first bounced in 2002, this is the biggest: it is much more splintered. Nobody dominates.

And so now, as a consequence, coalition-making is much more difficult, much more time-consuming. The process demands a set of skills and attitudes and a willingness to work in a way not necessary when the big parties ruled and there was no doubt about who was in charge.

The political arts of compromise without selling out, of prioritising your policies, of collaborating while keeping your identity intact, of maintaining your purpose while accepting that others have legitimate needs that might conflict with your ideas – these are hard to master, and hard to practise.

The next government will face many of the same structural problems in the Irish system of politics that its predecessors tackled with mixed success

Whether or not the current negotiations between Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Greens end in the construction of a government or not – my view has always been that is the likely, though not certain, outcome – this is how our governments will be put together for the foreseeable future. It’s hard to see anyone getting 81 seats for a while.

This different type of coalition, produced by this very different type of process, will be faced with an unprecedented challenge of containing coronavirus, rebuilding the economy and satisfying the public demand for change in the way we do some things that was the animating force in the February election.

How the new government – whatever its eventual shape – marries the desire for restoring our pre-coronavirus society with the need to correct its deficiencies will decide its success, or its failure. It will have the benefit of very significant resources in the shape of tens of billions of borrowed euros in its early years at least; though that cannot and will not endure indefinitely.

But the next government will also face many of the same structural problems in the Irish system of politics and government that its predecessors tackled with mixed success, and some conspicuous failures.

A public service that does some things well but is resistant to reform; a stranglehold of the professions and vocal special interests – example: as Trinity academic Virpi Timonen argued a few weeks ago, why on earth are we prioritising the opening of pubs over the opening of schools? – and a reluctance to acknowledge that change will always discommode some people.

Nowhere is this last statement truer than when it comes to climate action. If you think this bit was hard, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

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