After the departure of two Government party leaders, what next for the Coalition?

Eamon Ryan’s replacement as Green leader - to be named on July 8th - is expected to assert themselves but there’s little time to make an impact before the next electoral contest

The Green Party hopes the appointment in three weeks of either Roderic O’Gorman or Pippa Hackett as the party's new leader will stimulate a similar upturn in fortune to the one enjoyed by Fine Gael under Simon Harris. Photograph: Gareth Chaney & Stephen Collins/Collins

And then there was one.

Of the three men who conceived, assembled and worked the most unusual Coalition Government in the history of the State, two have now left in quick succession.

Only the Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin remains. He’s going nowhere.

Leo Varadkar’s departure from the Taoiseach’s office rocked his Fine Gael party to its core. But politics is rarely a backward-looking business. Less than three months on, the party is delighted with its new leader Simon Harris and his “new energy”. It approaches the coming election with a confidence unimaginable at the start of the year.


The circumstances of Eamon Ryan’s departure as leader of the Green Party, the third party in the Coalition, this week are not entirely dissimilar to Varadkar’s: a combination of personal factors and political adversity. In Ryan’s case it was crystallised by dismal election results in the June 7th local and Europe elections. Perhaps there will be a similar outcome, though few Greens are confident of it. A further electoral struggle most likely awaits.

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Just as Harris brought a different dynamic to the decision-making crucible at the top of the Government, so Ryan’s departure and his replacement – by either Roderic O’Gorman or Pippa Hackett, to be decided in three weeks’ time – will change how the Government sounds, looks, decides and implements its policies.

The success or otherwise of its new leader will, of course, have a profound impact on the Green Party as it tries to avoid a massacre at the general election. But a larger question is how Ryan’s departure affects the Government as it enters the final phase of its life.

What now for the Coalition?

One thing about being in Government, according to those who have worked at a leadership level, is that you don’t really get the opportunity to sit down and ponder questions such as this because events come at you too rapidly to consider it.

It is into this increasingly pressurised cauldron that the new Green Party leader will enter when he or she takes over. Over the coming weeks, the Coalition will have to decide whether to proceed with the hate speech/hate crime bill in its current form, how to resolve the RTÉ funding crisis (a subject on which the Greens have strong views), what the fiscal parameters are for the budget, as laid down in the summer economic statement and – though this will probably be kept a secret among the party leaders – when the general election should take place.

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Some of these decisions will be made by the time a new leader is announced on July 8th. So will Ryan keep the candidates briefed on these discussions?

“Given their position as Cabinet ministers, Minister Ryan will be keeping them briefed on these matters,” a spokesman says. If so, they will be better briefed than many other Cabinet members are; often the first they hear of a decision is when it is presented to the Cabinet after the leaders have made up their minds.

Starting next week, the Coalition leaders will start working through these decisions. The word from Brussels is that the jockeying for jobs is already well under way and with a summit of leaders likely to finalise the top EU jobs next week, the Government is keen to nominate the next Irish Commissioner. On Wednesday, the Fianna Fáil leader – whose choice this is – indicated it would be announced next week.

Martin is keeping his thoughts on his pick for the job strictly private, but Minister for Finance Michael McGrath is the unbackable favourite at this point. His departure would open a major Cabinet vacancy. Party sources speculate that the appointment this week of Jack Chambers as deputy leader – a role that had been kept vacant for four years – presages his elevation to Cabinet next week as McGrath’s replacement.

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A new minister for finance, which, along with Public Expenditure, is the most powerful ministry in Government, is a significant change for any administration. Only a few weeks before the summer economic statement sets out the budget parameters for the autumn, it is more significant still. Given how close Chambers is to Martin, it only increases the influence of the Fianna Fáil leader on the budget process and, in turn, his power in Government.

“Budgets are economic, financial and political documents,” says Stephen Kinsella, professor of economics at the University of Limerick. “They arise from negotiations, and personalities matter in those negotiations. Budgets always reflect the Ministers who write them.”

Soon afterwards, the Coalition leaders will have to make tougher decisions. There will be two showdowns. The first relates to the hate speech/hate crime Bill, currently stalled in the Seanad. The Taoiseach has promised a decision by the summer recess. The Greens are in favour of proceeding; O’Gorman strongly so. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil sources see merit in splitting the Bill and proceeding with the hate crime elements, while referring the hate speech provisions – the really politically contentious bit – back to an Oireachtas committee for further debate.

Then there is the second showdown. On the question of RTÉ funding, the Coalition is also split between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil on one side, the Greens on the other. The Green Party’s Minister for Media Catherine Martin has made clear her party’s desire for the licence fee to be replaced with direct State funding for RTÉ. This was a recommendation of the Future of Media Commission two years ago but was rejected – despite championing by Martin – by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

The Tánaiste and the Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe, along with Mr McGrath, are known within Government to be implacable opponents of direct Exchequer funding, not just because they don’t believe it’s a good idea to make the State broadcaster dependent on annual budget decisions by politicians, but because they believe that RTÉ remains largely unreformed.

The agreement of the summer economic statement is not really a showdown between the Greens and their partners, but it is one of the most important decisions of the year. It sets the parameters for the budget in the autumn, and so pits the spenders against the savers, the fiscal hawks against the doves, those who want to spend more against those who want to cut taxes; the details will not be worked out until the budget, but the statement delineates the realm of the possible, and marks out the battlegrounds.

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Already the positioning is under way. The Taoiseach told his parliamentary party on Wednesday night that he wants to see the budget “reducing the cost of childcare, school and college”. In truth, it has been under way for months. But it is now more important than ever for the Greens to show progress on their priorities, to show that they can get results from being in Government. Inevitably, that is a recipe for tension.

“Governments tend to collapse backward,” says Eoin O’Malley, a lecturer in politics at Dublin City University. “You know when the election should be, and each party might try to get ahead of the other, sometimes causing a collapse no one wants or anticipates.

“The Greens will want to avoid what happened in 2011, losing all their seats, and being used to save a few Fianna Fáil TDs with transfers. So a new leader may want to shift to a left alliance, more in line with the views of their base. But in doing so it will be hard not to cause a rupture in Government.”

UCD politics professor Aidan Regan agrees that the probability of an early election is increasing.

“I imagine Eamon Ryan would have been the main opposition to an early election, and that potential veto is now gone. Whoever the new leader is just won’t have the same persuasive power over Harris or Martin,” he says.

“I also imagine their new leader will be more focused on preparing the party for an election than trying to keep the Greens in government. They will probably rush now to finish any business in their ministerial portfolios, and try lock in as many green things as possible for whoever comes next.”

The clock is ticking. While there is a sense that a new Green leader will inevitably seek to demonstrate their relevance, the reality is that this administration is in its final stages.

“You would expect them to assert themselves,” says one Government TD of vast experience. “But they won’t have much time to do anything. I’m not sure there’s enough time for acts of bravado.”