Irish election update: Is a ‘grand coalition’ the order of the day?

Following another week of shadow boxing, horse trading and backroom talks, the illusive number of 80 seats looks as far off as ever. As the prospects for a progressive ‘coalition of the left’ dissipate, and Micheál Martin leaves Sinn Féin out in the cold, is a “grand coalition” between the old two parties and the Greens the order of the day?

The new Dáil meets

The 33rd Dáil met for the first time on Thursday, with their first task being the election of a Ceann Comhairle. Only two TDs put themselves forward for the role – Independent TD and former Communications Minister Denis Naughten, and the outgoing Ceann Comhairle and former Fianna Fáil TD Seán Ó Fearghaíl. The incumbent Ó Fearghaíl was resoundingly returned as chair of the Dáil, with 130 votes to Naughten’s 28. Although the vote was conducted by secret ballot, it is thought that Sinn Féin will have unanimously supported his re-election, as this places them on par with Fianna Fáil as the party with the largest number of voting TDs. Conversely, whilst Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin publicly supported Ó Fearghail’s re-election to the role, it is thought that privately he would have preferred if Ó Fearghaíl had not stood for the role again given the tightness of the Dáil arithmetic.

As expected, the subsequent nominations and votes for the role of Taoiseach were inconclusive, with none of the four nominees achieving anywhere close to the required majority. Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald came the closest with 45 votes in favour, 84 votes against and 29 abstentions. Her votes came from her own party, the hard-left Solidarity-People Before Profit and three left-wing independents, whilst the Social Democrats, Labour Party and 16 independent TDs abstained. Nonetheless, the fact that the absolute majority of deputies voted against McDonald’s nomination as Taoiseach, suggests that the prospects for the Republic’s first left-wing coalition government look to be dead in the water.

‘Shadow boxing’

Aside from Sinn Féin’s efforts to reach out to all other parties to form a government, progress in negotiations has been slow, with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael being accused of ‘shadow boxing’ and wasting time by the smaller parties.

This sentiment is shared by the electorate, with the latest opinion polling by Amárach Research suggesting that support for the two parties has continued to fall since the election. When asked the question “if there is no government resulting in a second general election, which party would you vote for?” 35% of respondents answered Sinn Féin (an increase of 11.5%), as opposed to 18% for Fine Gael and 17% for Fianna Fáil. According to this poll, the most popular coalition option among the electorate is a Fianna Fáil-Sinn Féin coalition (31%) – an option which Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has repeatedly ruled out. Mary Lou McDonald is, according to this poll. the most popular candidate to take up the role of Taoiseach (42%). Whilst these figures cannot be taken as 100% accurate, they do nonetheless reinforce the fact that for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the failure to form a government and prevent another general election remains a very dangerous possibility.

The inevitable ‘Grand Coalition’?

As the set of coalition options available to the larger parties becomes shorter, it appears increasingly inevitable that a ‘grand coalition’ of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and (most likely) the Greens will be the end result of this general election saga – an outcome which neither satisfies the electorate’s “appetite for change” nor will sit easily with the memberships of either of the two civil war parties.

The Green Party are in a strong negotiating position and are likely to drive a hard bargain and may well end up with as many as three cabinet positions – most probably taking the Communications, Climate Action and Environment portfolio (CCAE), and the Transport, Tourism & Sport portfolio. Meanwhile, the larger two parties can divvy up the remaining cabinet positions between them. Whether Fine Gael can bargain for a ‘rotating Taoiseach’ arrangement remains unclear.

What is clear, however, is that whilst this option is expedient in the short-term, in the longer-term leaving Sinn Féin as the largest party of opposition will do little to quell their rise to major (even dominant?) party status. Both parties know this and suggestions are afloat that usurping aspects of Sinn Féin’s popular platform on issues like housing and health may be the only way to prevent a fundamental realignment of the Irish party system.

Looking forward

The Dáil will reconvene on Thursday 5th March in order to attempt to elect a Taoiseach again. In the meantime, Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin will at last meet for exploratory talks on government formation early next week, with both also meeting with the Green Party.

Talks between the leaders and between the parties’ respective negotiating teams will likely take at least a number of weeks, as Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will want to indicate to their membership and to the electorate that they “drove a hard bargain”, and that they are only entering coalition with one another “for the good of the country”.

Will the Dáil votes on 5th March give us a clearer verdict, or might the stalemate persist into April? We will have to wait and see.

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Colm O'Dwyer

Account Executive

Aideen Ginnell

Ireland Director