Historic agreement between old rivals sees Government formation move one step closer

By Killian Keys, Corporate and Public Affairs, Wilson Hartnell

The agreement of a coalition framework between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil last week, while expected, will in time be regarded as a hugely significant milestone in Irish history. Against the backdrop of the Covid-19 emergency, the two dominant forces in Irish politics over the last century have committed to entering into an equal governing partnership, a situation that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago.

There is no doubt that Covid-19 has expedited this arrangement between the old foes. As things stand, the Oireachtas cannot pass any new legislation until a new Taoiseach is appointed. They, in turn, will need to appoint 11 new Senators to complete the Seanad’s membership before any new legislation can be passed. At a time of national emergency, a non-functioning parliament is far from ideal and there is an immediate need to rectify that.

However, Covid-19 is not the only reason for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil’s match up and it can be argued that the seeds for this were sown years ago. While the result of the 2020 General Election in February was remarkable in itself, this was an aftershock from the 2011 General Election, which fundamentally altered the Irish political landscape.

Punished by the electorate for its handling of the financial crisis, Fianna Fáil, the main party of Government in Ireland for most of the previous 80 years, was almost wiped out, dropping from 71 seats to just 20. Ireland, which until 2011 had always conformed to a choice between either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil, is now moving towards a more traditional centre-left vs centre-right grouping.

Therefore, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, two parties with broadly compatible ideals on the political spectrum, have been faced with the previously unimaginable thought of partnering. In the long run, it is likely that one of these parties will emerge as the default centre to centre-right option, while the other will be squeezed of support and either merge with the bigger party or stabilise as a much smaller party with greatly reduced influence.

The recently published joint framework for coalition outlines the approach that a Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil led Government will take. Commitments around increased state involvement in the provision of housing, a single-tier health system and a ‘new green deal’, are sweeteners they hope will entice one or two of the smaller parties, or perhaps some Independents, to pledge support.

With a combined 72 seats, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will need support from either the Green Party, Labour, the Social Democrats and some Independents to gain a majority of 80 seats in the Dáil. It may be possible to reach it with Independents alone, but that would make for a shaky majority as the Government would be reliant on the continued backing of individual politicians rather than party blocks.

For each of the smaller parties, entering into power is fraught with political danger. As parties of Government, the Green Party and Labour both saw a significant drop in support in the 2011 and 2016 General Elections respectively. That political risk is heightened given we are in the middle of a national emergency, the traumatic economic and social consequences of which are still unknown. Add to that, the looming presence of Brexit in the background, which still has a long way to go before being resolved. Equally, refusing to take part in a new Government could result in the smaller parties suffering a potential backlash from the electorate given so much is at stake right now.

It is possible that there will be a Government in place before the end of May, but the exact combination of parties, who becomes Taoiseach and the make-up of the Cabinet playing are still to be decided. In overall terms, with no ‘Confidence and Supply’ deal underpinning the Government’s existence this time around, the incoming Government will be in a stronger position to pass legislation than the previous one, albeit in a very different Ireland socially and economically.

And what of Sinn Féin after its huge gains in the 2020 General Election? It may be the case that Sinn Féin will be content to let Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil run the show for now and take up the position of main opposition, while building momentum for a real tilt at power at the next General Election. What is for certain, is that last week’s agreement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil has enshrined a significant alteration in Irish politics, from which there is no going back.