Covid-19 has speeded up political deal-making in some places, but not everywhere. It’s now more than four months since Ireland’s general election, and there’s still no new government in place.
But progress has been made. Readers may remember that at last report, back in April, the two traditional major parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, had agreed for the first time to form a coalition. That delivered 72 of the 159 seats in the lower house, so they needed to sign up someone else in order to command a majority.
Now they have: the Greens, with 12 seats, have agreed to join a power-sharing government. Fianna Fáil will provide the prime minister, Micheál Martin, for an initial period; then at the end of 2022 Fine Gael leader and current prime minister Leo Varadkar will return to the job.
But Ireland’s not quite there yet. The deal first has to be ratified by the membership of all three parties. And while the two majors won’t be a problem, there’s no certainty about the Greens, which require a two-thirds majority – particularly since three of their MPs abstained on the party room vote.
The Irish Greens have been in government before: from 2007 to 2011 they were junior partners in a coalition with Fianna Fáil. But the global financial crisis made that a bad experience all round; Fianna Fáil lost more than two-thirds of its seats at the following election, and the Greens were wiped out, only returning to parliament in 2016. It’s easy to see why party members might be hesitant about participation.
It’s not clear whether there are any other options in reserve if they say no. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil could try to tough it out together as a minority government and rely on support from independents, but it’s quite likely that Varadkar, whose popularity has been boosted by the health crisis, would prefer to try his luck with a fresh election.
Assuming the Greens go along, this will be a huge milestone in Irish politics, symbolically turning the page on the divisions of the 1922-23 civil war. It’s also a big advance for Sinn Féin; although the point of the coalition is to exclude it from power, it will become the official opposition for the first time, with the opportunity to present itself as the only alternative to the “old” parties.
The shift comes at an important time for Ireland, as reunion with the North – regarded as a pipedream at best for most of the last century – has reappeared on the political agenda. Sinn Féin no doubt would like nothing more than for its opponents to be wrong-footed on the issue, leaving it to campaign as the undisputed champions of an idea whose time has come.