Ireland needs a stable government for the post-Brexit negotiations

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Irish prime minister and leader of the Fine Gael party An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (C) poses with the leaders of Fianna Fail party Micheal Martin (L) and Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald (R) before the start of a RTE TV debate, in Dublin, Ireland, 4 February 2020. [Aidan Crawley/EPA/EFE]

The post-Brexit negotiations with the UK are particularly vital for Ireland and dealing with them requires a stable government in office, writes Dick Roche.

Dick Roche is a former Fianna Fáil politician. He was the minister of state for European affairs when Ireland conducted the two referendums on the Treaty of Lisbon of the European Union, in 2008 and 2009.

Ireland’s 8 February general election delivered an indecisive result. The top three parties Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and Fine Gael returned to the 160-member Dáil with 38, 37 and 35 seats, respectively, each a long way short of the 80 votes needed to form a government.

Sinn Féin, a GUE group member, did spectacularly well and won 24.5% of the popular vote. Fianna Fáil, a Renew Europe member, followed with 22.2%.  The governing Fine Gael party (EPP) won 20.9%. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael both lost seats.

The newly elected Dáil met on 20 February but failed to elect a Taoiseach.

Since then ‘feelers’ have been put out, initial positions have been taken and talks about talks are underway as to where we go next.

The process of forming the government is going to be tough – but Ireland has been here before.

After the February 2016 general election, a new government was not formed until May.

On that occasion, the Dáil failed to elect a Taoiseach on three separate dates.

On 29 April 2016 Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil announced that an agreement had been reached that would allow a government to form. On 6 May, the Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny was elected at the head of a minority government supported on a confidence and supply basis by the Fianna Fáil.

Any government formed this time will, realistically, have to contain at least two of the three top parties. But there are problems.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael see Sinn Féin as toxic. The views of the party leaders have, if anything, hardened since the election.

This antipathy makes the prospects of either of the traditional leading parties joining Sinn Féin in government unlikely.

The position has not been eased by a statement issued by the head of An Garda Síochana,  Ireland’s police force, regarding links between Sinn Féin and the ‘army council’ of the Provisional IRA. Sinn Féin protests that the IRA has ‘gone away’.

Sinn Féin would prefer to form a broad left alliance government including Greens, Labour, Social Democrats Solidarity- PBP and independents. But getting the 80 votes for a left alliance government are slim.

In a novel move, Sinn Féin is currently holding rallies ostensibly aimed at ‘holding a conversation’ with voters. These rallies play to the party’s base. They have, however, drawn fire and have been portrayed as injecting ‘Trump Style politics» into Irish politics.

The rallies and the very strident tone that the party leadership has adopted towards any questioning of its ‘right’ to be in government suggests to many that Sinn Féin would prefer to be on the outside rather than in government.

Against this background, the most likely option would seem to be a Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Greens Government supported by some independent Deputies.

That option is not popular with many of the members of the main “civil war” parties. Many in Fine Gael would prefer to go into opposition. Some members of both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael see a coalition with the traditional ‘enemy’ as a repellent.

In addition to overcoming internal opposition, a coalition involving both parties is also a ‘hard sell’ for many of the voters who looked for ‘change’ when they cast their vote on 8 February.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael coming together would be a ‘change’ but not what many voters had in mind.

There are two other possible options. The first is another general election.

But at present, there is no sign of any appetite for a second election.

Antipathy to another election is likely to deepen in the period ahead as concerns about Brexit and the other challenges that Ireland faces in a less than certain world develop.

The post-Brexit negotiations with the UK are particularly vital for Ireland. They impact on critical sectors. Dealing with them requires a stable government in office.

Concerns that the world economy is heading into choppy waters will add to the pressure to form a government. The public will become impatient with any party that is seen to be dragging its feet on the matter of putting a stable government in place at a critical time.

There is one other option – the formation of a ‘national government’ of all parties, for a fixed term, with an agreed policy programme and with ministerial positions distributed on some form of D’Hondt system across the political spectrum.

Such an arrangement would be a real change. It would be a very different kind of politics. It would recognise that all 160 Deputies elected on 8 February have an equal mandate and that they all have an equal responsibility to form a government that would see Ireland through the challenges that lie ahead. It is, however, an unlikely outcome – a step too far.

The Dáil will meet again next week but is very unlikely to resolve the riddle posed by the election outcome. The election story has some time to run yet.

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