Stephen Collins: Divided Greens will make for unstable coalition

Trust and discipline key to capacity of next government for decisive action

The grudging tone emanating from those involved in the talks on government formation and the glacial pace of progress do not auger well for the future of the three-party coalition struggling to be born. The decision of Green Party deputy leader Catherine Martin to challenge Eamon Ryan for the leadership has added another layer of confusion and distrust to a process that was already being regarded with suspicion by a significant number of people in all of the three parties taking part in the process.

There is still some doubt about whether the talks will finally conclude with an agreement this weekend although the general expectation is that they have gone too far to end in failure. Even if there is agreement there is no guarantee that it will be ratified by a two-thirds majority of Green Party members. That will depend to a large degree on whether the party’s 12 TDs give it their enthusiastic backing.

So far a number of them have given the impression that being in coalition with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil is the last place they want to be and a number of people in the other two parties share that sentiment with regard to the Greens. “Even if Eamon Ryan manages to drag the Greens to the altar this has all the signs of a loveless marriage in the making. You have to ask how long it is going to last,” remarked one Fine Gael politician.

Decisive action

The scale of the problems facing the country in the post Covid-19 world will require a government that has the ability to take decisive action which will inevitably generate vociferous opposition from political opponents and constant media criticism. Surviving the pressure will require strong nerves and strong personal bonds between the party leaders as well as a mood of trust among ministers.


Unless a new cabinet is able to unite in a spirit of solidarity behind a programme for government the tensions which have characterised the negotiating process are likely to re-emerge. That is why a bad start will undermine any chance of dealing successfully with the country’s problems, however long the government lasts.

The record of past coalitions may be some guide to the pitfalls that await if one of the parties lacks wholehearted commitment. A classic example is the Fine Gael-Labour coalition of the 1980s led by Garret FitzGerald and Dick Spring which took over the country after the appalling mismanagement of the public finances by Charles Haughey.

From the beginning a significant element of the Labour Party, most notably current President Michael D Higgins and Kildare TD Emmet Stagg, opposed going into coalition and subsequently did everything possible to make life difficult for Spring and his colleagues in government.

Just 18 months into the lifetime of the government Spring almost lost control of his party at its annual conference when he only defeated the anti-coalition faction by 363 votes to 324. Higgins, then party chairman, led the frontal assault denouncing coalition with “the redneck fundamentalists” of Fine Gael.

Having to deal with such inveterate opponents of coalition meant that Spring effectively had one hand tied behind his back and could not agree to the kind of difficult measures that were needed to drag the country out of recession. The diary of Fine Gael minister for education Gemma Hussey gives a flavour of the kind of tensions that beset that government.

When the worsening state of the public finances prompted cuts in food subsidies in the summer of 1984 there was a political storm. “Appalling flack going on about the food subsidies. The hysteria from Michael D Higgins, Joe Higgins of the Labour left, John Carroll [trade union leader], the housewives, you name it, as well as Fianna Fáil’s Michael O’Kennedy being extremely rude on radio. The media are totally gone off mad.”

The miracle of that government was that it managed to survive four years and did have some notable achievements to its credit but it was unable to do what ministers knew needed to be done about the economy. The lesson is that if the Greens go into coalition divided from the start the government will be distracted by interminable internal party wrangling.

Three-party coalition

A more hopeful example of how a coalition can work well was the three-party coalition of Fine Gael, Labour and Democratic Left that held office from late 1994 until 1997 after the tumultuous events that brought Albert Reynolds crashing down. Many forecast disaster for the only government formed without an election, particularly because of past tensions between taoiseach John Bruton, tánaiste Dick Spring and Democratic Left leader Proinsias De Rossa.

In the event it was a reasonably happy and a successful government which left the country it a better position than it found it with the first budget surplus in a generation. The key to its success was the level of trust between the party leaders and the discipline shown by the TDs of the three parties in keeping the focus on the big issues and refusing to be panicked by every passing storm. If the new government can follow that example it might succeed but it will need to put the difficult birth behind it as quickly as possible.