After months of stalling and behind the scene negotiations, Irish centre parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have released a joint policy document with a view to forming a coalition. So as the clock is ticking on the Covid-19 crisis, what is in the deal and who else is involved? 

Following a final series of talks between the two leaders of Ireland’s largest political parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, it looks like the country is about to get itself a new government – right in the middle of its biggest crisis since the Second World War. Incumbent Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar met with Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin and the result has been a draft document outlining the policy for government and, for the first time in the history of the Irish state, a coalition between these two rival parties. The document has been shown to both party brass and once the proofreaders on either side have a look, it will make its way around the two parliamentary parties for approval, which is expected to happen in the next few days.

For many, this is long overdue and indeed, to the outside viewer, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael look ideologically identical. Both parties have a large conservative element which is at odds with progressive social democrat polices championed by their respective leaders. Both are pro business, pro-EU and opposed to Brexit, and both parties are firm supporters of cross border initiatives with Northern Ireland. On paper, they look like a perfect match, but history and tradition set them apart. There have been numerous books written on the subject, but a simple explanation is included here in a previously published article.

Critical change

A few soundbites from the Fine Gael side today outlined the major points to the document – seven of them – which will be in the form of “tests”. Some tests include “sustainability at the heart of our fiscal policy, our enterprise policy, our innovation policy and our environment policy” and a “new mission and sense of purpose which demonstrates urgency for doing things differently, and reflects our values and our ability to lead change at critical times.”

The document also contains a number of missions which are aimed at key sectors of society. The youth will be taken in at the level of addressing college fees, while a strong emphasis on stepping up on providing affordable housing in the state will be part of a broad policy aimed at the many struggling families of all ages across the country.

The Covid-19 crisis has been put to the forefront of the document with both parties committed to engaging in immediate action to rebuild the economy in the as yet defined aftermath, with a massive national plan in writing once the government is in place.

The little three

There is still more room for smaller parties in the proposed coalition, as the numbers are needed to secure a strong administration in the Irish parliament, or Dáil. The Green party, Social Democrats and Labour are all possible partners as the extra seats in the face of the inevitable opposition in the form of Sinn Féin who have been ignored as a possible partner by both centre parties so far. Of all candidates, all three parties mentioned have an equal shot with even more than one possibly making it in. But they will need to be able to enforce their polices with an iron fist and be prepared to enter government in what will likely be one of the most difficult administrations in the state’s history. The past has shown that in troubled coalitions, small parties come off the worst, and both the Green party and Labour have recent experience of this. Both parties entered government as a junior partner in the last twenty years and experienced first hand what it’s like to be on the receiving end of policies that hit the citizens hard.

The alternative option for the smaller parties could be to instigate a confidence and supply agreement, which, in effect, would allow them to participate yet stand away when things go wrong. It’s a clever way of almost sitting in the middle of the parliament while earning points from the electorate for swinging both ways when required. Certainly, Fianna Fáil did not do too badly from adopting this tactic and it could be an attractive mode of operation for ‘the little three’.

An independent option

Should Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael fail to sweet talk the smaller parties into league with them, there is also the second option of working with a brace of independent elected members of parliament (TDs). Their policies are spread far and wide across the political spectrum, so a fair bit of wheeling and dealing would be needed to get as many as possible on board and secure a strong set of seats in the government. The problem with using a large amount of independent TDs is that as time goes on, there may be a case of hemorrhaging seats and allowing the opposition to slowly creep into a commanding tally. There is also the fear that should independents be used as cannon fodder in implementing polices they are not too keen on supporting, they, in turn, could be casualties at the next election, accused of ‘selling out’ on the locals that they pledged to represent. But for now, the independent option is still worth looking at.

What’s ‘left’?

Are we dismissing a possible partner in the shape of Sinn Féin? Most likely, yes. As awkward as it is to form a government given the numbers, the idea of a coalition involving Sinn Féin at this late point seems very unlikely. Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are keen to work together, but adding a large radical left on their backs for the next couple of very difficult years of social and economic recovery? I very much doubt it.

The next few days will be crucial and we wait to see what the little three will come back with. Changes? Most likely, and some will be included, but either way, it seems that a large proportion of the political spectrum are desperate to install some stability given the current crisis, so a deal is going to be done. We spoke about a new form of politics in 2008 when Ireland was faced with a massive recession, but now it seems that the book on that is being re-written again.

Ken Sweeney
Committed to idea of supporting aspiring writers and journalists. Serial podcaster.

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