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Pat Leahy: Ireland had better get used to minority governments

Poll shows majority for Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil is out of question so deals will be done

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: he and the administration he heads are relatively popular by the standards of recent governments. Photograph: Olivier Matthys

The latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll, published this week, was remarkable for the degree of stability it demonstrated at a time of considerable flux in Irish politics.

Threats to the Government are internal and external – first from the ending of the confidence-and-supply agreement with Fianna Fáil and the associated uncertainty about whether the administration has a future, and then from the possibility of a calamitous no-deal Brexit next year, with all the economic disruption and political dislocation it would entail.

Despite this uncertain landscape, any movements in party support since our last political poll in April were within the margin of error of 2.8 per cent. There were small declines in the satisfaction rating for both the Taoiseach and the Government, though both Leo Varadkar and the administration he heads are relatively popular by the standards of recent Irish governments. (Those standards, of course, are not especially high: the last two Irish governments both received comprehensive monsterings at the hands of the electorate.)

As we know, because they regularly tell us, politicians don’t pay much attention to polls. But there are a small number of enduring trends which are unlikely to terminate before an election.

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The first is the biggest and most consistent change between the result of the last election and the situation reflected in the polls – the halving of the votes for Independents and small parties. In 2016, it reached its highest-ever level at 30 per cent of the vote. Last week it was 14 per cent. It has shuffled around the mid-teens for two years. Several independent TDs will almost certainly lose their seats. Beyond that, the trends can be largely summarised as follows: Fine Gael is up and ahead of Fianna Fáil, though the latter party has a record of recovering during campaigns; Sinn Féin is up, but the gains are of questionable solidity; Labour is floundering.

Put all these ingredients together, throw them into an electoral blender and the result is: no majority for anyone after the next election.

So what happens then?

Next election

An awful lot of mental energy is currently being expended by political professionals and those who observe them pondering the date and circumstances of the next election; it is a point of constant discussion, I am told, in the Taoiseach’s office. But very little has been devoted to considering what happens afterwards. And that’s even more important.

The days when an election was followed pretty quickly by the formation of a government are over, ended by the fracturing of Irish politics that been one of the chief legacies of the crash. Nowadays the election is followed by a competitive process of government formation that is likely to take some months. The party with the most seats has the advantage in that race; but not necessarily a decisive one.

The days when an election was followed pretty quickly by the formation of a government are over

If the polls and previously observed electoral trends are borne out at the election, the post-election landscape is likely to be Fine Gael as the biggest party, followed by Fianna Fáil, followed by Sinn Féin, and then a reduced pool of independents and small parties – some of which will be available for coalition, some not.

At the end of the process, there will be a government led by Fine Gael, or a government led by Fianna Fáil; I count five potential options – either party leads a coalition with Sinn Féin, either party leads a minority government, perhaps supported by another confidence-and-supply agreement, or else the two form a grand coalition.

Mary Lou McDonald is in the market for coalition, but such a move – which both Varadkar and Martin have categorically ruled out – would be a step too far for huge numbers of both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Lots of them simply couldn’t live with it. This matters. It scuppered chances of a grand coalition last time. Sinn Féin will probably be in government some time in the not-too-distant future. But it is hard to see it next time.

So what then?

Reeling in allies

The post-election period will see both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil race to assemble the most votes for taoiseach. This will be a function of each party’s election result, but also of their ability to nail down Independent and small party support. Fine Gael expects it will beat Fianna Fáil hands down on the numbers of its own TDs; Fianna Fáil reckons it will do better at reeling in allies to close or even eliminate the gap.

At the end of that process, the choice for the loser will be to facilitate the winner in a repeat of the current arrangement, or to join a grand coalition as a junior partner.

The choice for the loser will be to facilitate the winner in a repeat of the current arrangement, or to join a grand coalition as a junior partner

Fine Gael is fed up with the current minority arrangements, and officials warn of the Government’s inability to take hard decisions that will be required next year on public sector pay, health budgets, broadband and economic policy (and that’s before we even get to Brexit). Senior party figures tell me they wouldn’t go for this option again. But would Fine Gael really like to halve its number of ministerial jobs?

If Fianna Fáil comes off second-best, would it really pass up a chance at government? There are some members of Micheál Martin’s party who wouldn’t; I am pretty sure about that.

I am writing from Brussels where the heads of European governments gathered this week for a three-day summit. A large number of them lead minority governments. Others lead grand coalitions. This is the norm in Europe. It is Ireland that has historically been unusual. Multiparty systems mean unusual coalitions and minority governments. We had better get used to it.