The only two-party coalition possible is a Fiánna Fail – Fine Gael one. Once a historically unimaginable combination, it now makes political sense.
For what was historically a predictable two-party system, politics in the Republic of Ireland has been shaken up by the country’s recent elections. The ruling Fine Gael – Labour coalition led by Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny was rebuffed in favour of many other parties and Independents, with no one group coming out on top.
Such a hung parliament is significant for any parliamentary system, but especially so in the Republic of Ireland. The country has fluctuated between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael governments ever since independence in 1921. These two ideologically similar parties opposed each other based on the Anglo-Irish Treaty and subsequent Irish Civil War of the early 1920s, with Fianna Fáil supporting the Treaty and Fine Gael opposing it.
The Treaty gave the Republic of Ireland it’s independence, but it also enforced ‘partition’, keeping six counties of Ulster within the United Kingdom. This creation of ‘Northern Ireland’ or the ‘Six Counties’ (depending on your political alignment) created a powerful rift within Irish politics, with pro-Treaty Fine Gael defending the deal and anti-Treaty Fianna Fáil claiming it had failed in creating a united, independent Ireland.
In short, their century-long opposition has prevented these two parties from ever forming a coalition. However, that may have to change following this year’s election results.
The brand new 2016 Dáil Eireann (the Irish Parliament) looks like this:
The parties involved:
Fianna Fáil (FF – Blue)
Historically the ‘anti-Treaty’ party, FF were the ruling party for large chunks of the 20th century, with famous past leaders including Sean Lemass and Eamon De Valera.
Fine Gael (FG – Green)
‘Pro-Treaty’ Fine Gael are roughly as centre-right and traditionalist as FF, but they have more commonly formed the Opposition or ruled in coalition with Labour.
Sinn Féin (SF – Dark Green)
An all-Ireland party who also contest UK parliamentary elections in Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin favour the unification of Ireland and are more left-wing than both ‘mainstream’ parties.
Ireland has far more Independent candidates than most Western parliamentary systems, allowing local issues to become priorities instead of party politics.
Former coalition partner Labour have lost the majority of their seats in the 2016 election. Their political stance is to the left of FF/FG and to the right of SF, making them the main centrist party in the Republic.
People Before Profit Alliance (PBPA – Maroon)
A broad left group comprised of former Socialist candidates, the PBPA also contests elections across Ireland and has done well to return 6 TDs in these elections.
Social Democrats (SD – Purple)
Less than a year old, this party was formed by 3 Independent TDs who advocate ‘Nordic social democracy’, opposing both water charges and the Irish constitutional ban on abortion known as the ‘8th Amendment’.
Green Party (Light Green)
Similar to Green parties in other countries, the Irish Green Party only returned 2 TDs: many other Irish parties diluted the Greens’ share of left-wing environmentalist votes.
With 80 ‘Teachtaí Dála’ or ‘TD’s (members of the Dáil) needed to create a government, the only two-party coalition possible is a Fiánna Fail – Fine Gael one. Once a historically unimaginable combination, it now makes political sense.
Sinn Féin becoming the Dáil’s third party also represents a sea change in Irish politics, but just as important are the 23 Independent TDs (holding as many seats as Sinn Féin). Despite their newfound success, these groups would make unusual coalition partners. Sinn Féin’s policies are to the left of FF and FG, and Independents are by their nature unlikely to submit to a party whip for important votes.
The Republic of Ireland’s proportional voting system has allowed Irish voters to vote for many smaller parties and therefore send many messages at once. Labour supporters are clearly disappointed with their party, and Fine Gael also failed to take advantage of being the incumbent party. Their slogan of ‘keep[ing] the recovery going’ tried to take advantage of Irish economic growth, which is currently at an incredible 7% of GDP.
However, despite being the first European nation to repay its bailout loans to the IMF and EC, economic recovery has been uneven. As is the case in Britain, many still don’t feel the benefits as homelessness and youth unemployment are peaking.
Fine Gael have also struggled after proposing water charges which would see Irish citizens pay for tap water for the first time. Despite a notorious abundance of water, the Republic’s water infrastructure has crumbled. Over 50% of treated water is lost through leakages, and citizens of Boyle (Roscommon) now have to boil their water to make it safe.
These problems count against the government’s economic credentials. Derek Mooney of the Guardian further believes that their counter move of promising to scrap Irish income tax (the ‘Universal Social Charge’) simply made them appear desperate and irresponsible at a time when social services need more funding.
Fianna Fáil further grabbed Fine Gael votes by contrasting the awkward scripting of Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s campaign events with their leader Micheál Martin’s community engagement and TV debate success. Combine these differences in image and economic optimism, and it’s clear why the Fine Gael-Labour coalition lost so many seats to Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and Independents.
Whatever government emerges, this year’s elections have changed Irish politics. The two parties which dominated the 20th century are still here, but they now have to share a multi-party system with Sinn Féin, Independents and many small left-wing groups.
Once again, Ireland makes history.