Grand coalition looms in Ireland

As foreshadowed in my preview, the Irish government lost ground badly in Friday’s election. Fine Gael, the centre-right (for want of a better description) party of prime minister Enda Kenny remains the largest party with 25.5%, a drop of 10.6% from five years ago, closely followed by its historic rival, Fianna Fáil, on 24.3% (up 6.9%).

Even that swing need not have been catastrophic; what makes it impossible for the government to continue is the collapse in support for Fine Gael’s coalition partner, Labour, which fell from 19.4% to just 6.6%. Sinn Féin has easily supplanted it as the third party with 13.8% (up 3.9%).

Distribution of preferences has not yet been completed, so it’s impossible to give a final tally of seats – those who fancy their Hare-Clark skills can make their own estimates from the detailed results at Elections Ireland. To me at looks like about 54 seats to Fine Gael (down 22), 41 to Fianna Fáil (up 22), Sinn Féin 23 (up 14), Labour five (down 32!), the Anti-Austerity people six, three Social Democrats, two Greens, and about 23 independents of various sorts, some of them grouped into the Independents Alliance (maybe six seats) and Independents 4 Change (two). The 158th seat is the Speaker.

Regardless of how accurate those numbers are, the overall picture is clear. The only likely route to a stable majority is a grand coalition of the two largest parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil; Kenny, while conceding that the incumbent coalition has been defeated, has not ruled out pursuing such an arrangement.

On Friday I made the comparison with Spain, and although the similarities are clear, it’s worth noting two important differences. First, there is a clear centre-left majority in Spain: the political will may not be there to assemble its components into a government, but it is possible in principle. In Ireland, however, even a coalition between Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, the Social Democrats and the Greens would need maybe half the independents on side, and no-one is likely to make the attempt.

Secondly and more importantly, although there is a historic enmity, there is no large philosophical or policy difference between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, unlike the People’s Party and the Socialists in Spain. Both sit towards the centre of the political spectrum, and they have pursued similar policies in their recent terms of government. Objectively they are not a bad fit.

That’s why, although I think a grand coalition in Spain is possible but unlikely, in Ireland it seems by far the most likely outcome.

That’s also the view of Sinn Féin, which is bidding to become the main opposition party. It could be the start of a process of realignment that will eventually give Ireland a normal-looking party system, rather than one anchored in the nationalist struggles of the early twentieth century.

Updates to come as results are finalised.

——

*UPDATE 2.15am Monday, Irish time*

At the end of Sunday’s counting all but ten seats have been finalised, and the distribution of preferences has been a bit worse for Fine Gael and a bit better for Fianna Fáil than I expected.

Fine Gael has 46 seats (plus the Speaker) and will pick up two and probably three more; Fianna Fáil has 43 and will get one more; Sinn Féin has 22 and will probably get another or even two more; Labour has six and might make it to seven or eight, and the Anti-Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit has five and will probably get a sixth. There are three Social Democrats, two Greens and 20 (will be 22) independents.

None of that changes the broad picture outlined above, except that in the unlikely event that Fianna Fáil was to remember its republican roots and try to form a coalition with Sinn Féin, the numbers would not be quite as hopelessly against it as I suggested yesterday. But it won’t happen; modern-day policy and ideological differences will trump history.

And while that might make for a difficult time in parliament this time around, in the long run it’s got to be a good thing for political development in Ireland.

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