Until relatively recently, Ireland had a fairly clear two-party system, so there was rarely much trouble about putting together a government. But in 2016, after the rise of Sinn Féin and independents, it took more than two months. This year it’s already been two and a half months since the election and there’s clearly some way to go yet.
But that doesn’t mean nothing has happened. Although Covid-19 has pushed most other things off the front page, last week’s developments in Ireland are potentially of historic importance, representing the coming together of its two traditional major parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
Recall the result of February’s election, which returned a parliament with close to an even four-way split: Fianna Fáil 38 seats,* Sinn Féin 37, Fine Gael 35, and 50 in total for everyone else (Greens, Labour, Social Democrats, People Before Profit and independents).
That meant that a combination of any of two of the three big parties would probably be necessary, but not sufficient, for a majority; they would need some of the minor parties and/or independents as well. And Fianna Fáil, being the one ideologically in the middle, had the most important choice to make about which way to go.
It chose to open negotiations with Fine Gael, and last week they reached a coalition agreement, citing the need for national unity during the health crisis. It’s now a matter of finding enough other partners to reach a parliamentary majority. Labour and the Greens are the most likely prospects, although neither so far sounds particularly keen.
But whether or not they succeed in forming government, the agreement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil is momentous. The Irish Times coyly calls them “the Civil War parties,” but what that means is that they are defined by having fought on opposite sides of the Irish Civil War of 1922-23. A century of Irish politics has been built around their enmity.
They have co-operated before; it was the 2016 election that first forced them to rely on each other for a majority. But that did not result in coalition, only an agreement by Fianna Fáil to tolerate a minority Fine Gael government.
Now, they have taken the next step towards reshaping the party system along less anachronistic lines. It may be that before long they will effectively amount to a single centre-to-centre-right political force, opposed to a loose left-to-centre-left grouping led by Sinn Féin.
Or it may not. Not every grand coalition portends a realignment; Germany’s two major parties, for example, have governed together a number of times without remaking the political map. When the immediate occasion is past, they go back to being opponents.
But the imperatives that have forced co-operation in Ireland, while certainly heightened by the health crisis, are much more solid. Sinn Féin shows no signs of fading away, and if the other two are not willing to work with it, they have no long-term alternative to working with each other.
So far they are managing, just as Britain’s Conservatives and Liberal Democrats did in 2010. But that came more than 360 years after the English Civil War – and Irish memories may be longer in any case.
* Now reduced to 37, since Fianna Fáil has again provided the Speaker, who only votes to break a tie.