Ireland – The problems of government formation

This is a guest post by Gary Murphy from the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University

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The Irish general election of 26 February 2016 has thrown up an inconclusive result which has made government formation extremely difficult. A month on from the election we know that when the Dáil reconvenes for the second time since that election (today 22 March) a new government will not be formed. The new Dáil originally met on Thursday 10 March and with no new government or Taoiseach elected on that day a caretaker Fine Gael Labour government led by a caretaker Fine Gael Taoiseach Enda Kenny continues in office. The intervening two weeks have seen no substantial progress made on forming a government and in that context we can expect that the caretaker government will continue in office for some more weeks yet.

The result of the general election continued the trend of austerity governments in Europe being rejected by their electorates. The two party coalition government of Fine Gael and Labour elected in 2011 with a massive majority of 30 seats in the 166 seat parliament was roundly rebuffed by the Irish voters. Fine Gael’s vote fell from 36.6 per cent in 2011 to 25.5 per cent in 2016 and they lost twenty six seats since 2011 falling to 50. Their coalition partners Labour did even worse collapsing from a record high vote of 19.6 per cent in 2011 to a record low of 6.6 per cent while recording a crushing loss of thirty seats going from thirty seven to just seven.

The main beneficiaries of these catastrophic losses for the government were the main opposition parties, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin and a plethora of independents ranging from those on the far left of Irish politics to a number of former members of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil known colloquially as gene pool independents.

Fianna Fáil the party which has dominated governance in the Irish state since it first entered government in 1932 performed a Lazarus like resurrection in the 2016 election. Dumped unceremoniously out of office after the economic crash by an angry electorate in 2011, Fianna Fáil’s vote fell to 17 per cent in that election down from 41.5 per cent in the previous 2007 election. They also lost a barely believable 58 seats going from 78 in 2007 to just 20 in 2011. Many (but not the present writer) predicted that Fianna Fáil was in terminal decline and would no longer be a major force in Irish politics. But despite being somewhat becalmed in opinion polls for the past twelve months on between 17 and 19 per cent of the vote Fianna Fáil had an excellent campaign and ended up polling 24.4 per cent of the vote and winning 44 seats, just six behind Fine Gael. In fact the 2016 general election results mirrored the 2014 local election results giving lie in an Irish context at least to the view that second order elections are meaningless come a general election.

This was nevertheless Fianna Fáil’s second worst general election since the foundation of the Irish state. Just over three decades ago the three main parties of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour received 94 per cent of vote. Now it stands at barely 55 per cent and the combined vote of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is less than 50 per cent. As recently as 1977 Fianna Fáil received over 50 per cent of the vote on their own. The stability of the party system that was the hallmark of Irish politics since the foundation of the state was originally diluted by the collapse of Fianna Fáil in 2011 and has surely been finished off by the Fine Gael result in 2016.

For their part Sinn Féin won 13.8 per cent of the vote, up 4 per cent since 2011, and increased their seat total from 14 in 2011 to 23 in 2016. Yet while this result on the surface looks impressive there can be little doubt that Sinn Féin, running on an anti-austerity agenda will be ultimately disappointed that both their vote and seat tally did not increase more substantially, particularly given the levels of dissatisfaction the electorate clearly felt towards the governing parties.

The fragmentation of Irish politics and the anti-party sentiment that has been pervasive within Irish society since the Troika of the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund arrived to bailout the Irish state in November 2010 was crystallised in 2016 by the rise of independent candidates who won 23 seats and received seventeen per cent of the vote. We can also add in the new Social Democrats party into this independent mix as their three existing TDs, all independents prior to the party’s formation in July 2015, were re-elected and they managed to have no other candidate elected. The People Before Profit – Anti Austerity Alliance can be included here as well as party cohesion has never been a strong point for those of the far left of Irish politics.

Given that Fine Gael were 30 seats short of being able to govern and Fianna Fáil 36 seats, as the new Dáil contains 160 seats, down from 166 in 2011, government formation has proved exceedingly difficult since the election. The only plausible coalition option is one between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil yet for that great Rubicon to be crossed in Irish terms will take a great leap. The antipathy both parties feel for each other is very great indeed. The alternative of a minority government led by either main party and tacitly supported by the other aided by help from like-minded independents and smaller parties seems far-fetched at this stage. The difficulty here is that any Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil led minority government which doesn’t have some sort of binding agreement by both parties would be very difficult to make work. Such a government would most likely fall and pretty quickly at that as it simply couldn’t govern effectively knowing that the main opposition party could bring it down at any opportunity. An added difficulty here is that the third main party in the Dáil, Sinn Féin, refuses to have any input into government formation at all, seemingly content to grow in opposition while those in government wither.

But government formation and the difficulties therein were not on the minds of the Irish voter when they went to the polls on the last Friday in February. The RTE exit poll showed that just nine per cent of voters viewed government stability as the most important issue when casting their ballot. Further data from that exit poll shows that just 13 per cent of voters viewed a Fine Gael Fianna Fáil grand coalition as their preferred governmental option. Only 15 per cent of Fine Gael voters and 20 per cent of Fianna Fáil voters wanted it when they went to the polls and it’s most likely probably even less now given Fianna Fáil’s resurgence and Fine Gael’s retrenchment.

In a previous post I wrote on the limitations of the role of the President in the Irish system. One of the few substantive powers the Irish president does have is the absolute discretion to refuse a dissolution of Dáil Eireann – Article 13:2:2 of the Irish Constitution Bunreacht Na hEireann. There has been much talk in the Irish media of the possibility of a second election in the next short number of months if a new government cannot be formed. In that context it might yet fall on President Michael D. Higgins to play a far more central role in government formation in Ireland if those TDs elected to Dáil Eireann cannot agree on a new government. By the power vested in him by the Constitution he will be fully entitled to refuse to dissolve the Dáil and to thus insist that some form of government be formed. These are strange days in Irish politics and they could become even stranger in the fraught weeks ahead.

Gary Murphy is Professor of Politics and Head of the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University. His latest book Electoral Competition in Ireland since 1987: the politics of triumph and despair will be published by Manchester University Press in March. Twitter @garymurphydcu

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