In February 2020, Ireland held elections for the Dáil Éireann, the lower house of the Oireachtas. The results were inconclusive and led to a protracted negotiation in order to form a government. After negotiations, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and the Greens came together to form a government. This coalition has only been together for a month and already cracks are beginning to show.
The Complex History of Ireland
Traditionally, two parties have dominated Irish politics: Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. These parties represent the different sides of the Irish Civil War. Fine Gael was comprised of the people who were in favor of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which gave the Irish what they called the “freedom to achieve freedom“. Fianna Fáil was founded by those who believed that the Anglo-Irish treaty did not go far enough in order to secure Irish freedoms. Traditionally, this has been the only major difference between the two parties.
There are other differences, but in modern day both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are center-to-center right. Their main differences today are the constituencies that they pander to. Fianna Fáil does better in the rural areas of Ireland and is more agrarian of the two parties while Fine Gael does better in the cities and has a business/moderate streak. These two parties rarely coalition with each other. This time, there is one reason that they chose to do so: Sinn Fein.
The Irish Nationalists
Sinn Féin is the Irish nationalist party. Historically, it is the party that both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael Split off from. They are the party that no one in Ireland wants to work with because they were the political wing of the IRA. However, 2020 marked the best election for Sinn Fein since 1923. This is because the current leader, Mary Lou McDonald, has made a concerted effort to move the party away from their past affiliations with the IRA. This has been successful with young voters who have no memory of The Troubles or of life before the Good Friday Agreement. Older voters, who have memories of numerous bombings that the IRA was responsible for, don’t have this luxury.
A Violent Legacy
McDonald is hampered in rebranding Sinn Féin by her predecessor Gerry Adams. Adam was the leader of Sinn Féin from 1983 to 2018 and still looms large within the party. Among older voters, he is a household name. He is widely believed to be a terrorist, implicated in the murder of Jean McConville and the La Mon restaurant bombing in the 1970s. As long as he is still in the picture and as long as he still has influence within the party, they will never be able to shake the taint of the IRA.
That is not the only problem McDonald has faced. She also has to deal with members of her own party being caught on tape saying controversial statements. Numerous members of Sinn Féin were caught at victory rallies saying the phrase “Tiocfaidh ár lá”. In English, this translates to “our time will come”. It has the same connotation in Ireland that the phrase the south will rise again has in America. It is impossible to divorce the statement from the baggage that it acquired during The Troubles.
The Grand Coalition
For all of these reasons, it is apparent why Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael decided that forming a government with Sinn Féin was impossible. However, parliamentary math made it very difficult for a government to be formed. After four months of negotiations, Fianna Fáil, the Greens, and Fine Gael agreed to form a government. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael decided to split the ministerships, with Micheál Martin becoming the new Taoiseach of Ireland and Leo Vradkar becoming the new Tánaiste. The Greens were given several key Ministerships, including the Environment.
The coalition has only been in effect for about a month and it is already starting to collapse. The first problem comes from Fianna Fáil. The party has multiple factions that have to be considered when forming a government. One of these factions is the faction loyal to former Taoiseach of Ireland Brian Cowen. This led to Micheál Martin appointing Cowen’s brother Barry to be head of the Ministry for Agriculture and the Marine. His appointment caused a minor uproar within Fianna Fáil as the Cowens are not liked within Ireland.
Brian had the government with an 8% approval rating. Then it came out that Barry had been arrested for driving while intoxicated. This caused him to be replaced as Minister by Dara Calleary. This move was controversial because not only did Micheál Martin force Cowen out of government, he appointed his deputy leader to the spot. This angered the Cowen supporters within Fianna Fáil and did not assuage the Cowen detractors. They believed that he should never have been in government in the first place. This is dangerous for the coalition because angered TDs have a tendency to become independents and vote against the party.
On July 23, an election was held for Leas-Cheann Comhairle of the Dáil Éireann. This role is equivalent to the deputy speaker. The coalition had a candidate for the position that they backed, Fergus O’Dowd of Fine Gael. They believed that the election was in the bag. However, when the votes were finally counted, Independent Catherine Connolly was elected. This came as a shock. The vote was 77-74 on a secret ballot. This means that some in the government voted against the government’s candidate. In the big picture, this office does not mean anything. However, if you cannot count on your coalition partners to vote for something so small as the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, how can you trust them to vote on a budget or a motion of confidence?
Current polling shows that Fine Gael would gain a lot of ground if new elections were called. This would be at the expense of Fianna Fáil, with the rest of the parties staying pat. If the results hold, Fine Gael would win 60 seats in the Dáil Éireann. 80 votes are needed to form a government. There will probably be a drive to leave the coalition and trigger elections once the COVID-19 pandemic is over.
The Future of Ireland
If Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael cannot learn to govern together, then eventually Sinn Féin will lead a minority government or support a minority government with Confidence and Supply. As The Troubles move further into the past and there are fewer people who have been impacted by various IRA Bombings, Sinn Féin will see a respective rise. Eventually, parliamentary math will make it so that they have to be in government. It is quite possible that the coalition survives until the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, but if Fine Gael’s poll numbers still look good, they might trigger a new election to try to capitalize on their numbers.