July 1, 2020
WICKLOW, Ireland – In many ways, everything has changed utterly since I wrote about February’s general election here in Ireland in the inaugural edition of Boston Irish. A global pandemic, the likes of which have not been seen in a century, struck – and both Ireland and the United States have been in various stages of “lockdown” ever since. But then, the most pressing issue for the Irish people was when we would get a new government and what it would look like.
Of course, the coronavirus has made the most inveterate of political junkies take a step back and prioritize public health in an overarching sense and the well-being of family and friends at an individual level. If anything, this profound human tragedy has made us realize what we have and, trite as it may be to say, what truly matters in our fragile existences.
In this milieu, it is no shock that the process of forming a government took a back seat for Irish politicians and in the national mindset. Observers of European politics may disagree in light of the norm in some countries on the continent, yet it has been extremely protracted.
To recap, the outcome of February’s general election took the commentariat by surprise. The two big beasts of Irish politics, the similarly centrist Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, garnered 38 and 35 seats respectively, but Sinn Féin had a hugely impressive showing.
The long ostracized, left-wing party managed to get 37 of its 42 candidates over the line and into the 33rd Dáil Éireann (Irish parliament), which is comprised of 160 TDs (equivalent of MPs). Moreover, owing mainly to the increasing centrality of climate change in contemporary political discourse, the Green Party also had an unprecedented election; 12 of its standard bearers won seats.
Much and all as life is different than it was a few months ago, the key question stayed the same: How do those who were chosen by the people to represent them get to a workable majority? Because Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael emphatically ruled out doing business with Sinn Féin from an early stage, there were just two realistic options: a theretofore unthinkable coalition between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, together with the Greens, or a second general election.
Even as the focus was appropriately on the fallout from Covid-19, negotiations continued in private, and journalists were kept busy following the various twists and turns, advances and drifts that flowed from the talks. Three subplots emerged – one from each party – that complicated matters.
First, Fine Gael, the incumbent party of government, saw its standing in the polls skyrocket after the people cast quite a negative judgment on it in February. President Trump aside, this is consistent with the way electorates around the world have rallied to their leaders in this fraught period. A mid-June opinion survey indicates that its support is up by roughly 17 percent since the election and that An Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) Leo Varadkar has a jaw-dropping 75 percent personal satisfaction rating.
Second, Fianna Fáil simultaneously plummeted and appears now to have a core of support that is somewhere in the mid-teens. This brought simmering unease with its leader, Micheál Martin, to the boil with quiet and not so quiet calls for him to go.
Martin’s internal foes alleged that his primary objective was to ensure that he would not go down as the party’s sole chief to not become Taoiseach and that he has accordingly ignored the existential threat that coalition with the old enemy, Fine Gael, poses to its future. They contend that only one of them will emerge ultimately from the coalition, and that it won’t be Fianna Fáil.
Third, the gulf between the Green Party’s pragmatic and purist factions has been laid bare for all to see. When the party was previously part of a coalition government, from 2007-2011, it achieved little and suffered greatly. As a consequence, its members, two-thirds of whom must agree to re-enter government in 2020, are rightly cautious at present.
And there have been sideshows. The party’s deputy leader, Catherine Martin, announced that she would mount a challenge to the long-time Green number one, Eamon Ryan. Putting aside the reality that it is strange to seek to depose Ryan after the party’s best ever election result, the timing – while Martin herself was negotiating a programme for government with putative coalition partners – is totally bizarre.
Ryan did not help his cause with predominantly hard-left critics by repeating the n-word in a Dáíl speech in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Although he was directly quoting an Irish Times piece written by a young black man who described how hurtful and dehumanizing the term is, was arguing for greater opportunity for people of color in Ireland, and has always been a passionate advocate of equality for all, it was an own goal.
So where did that leave us? The parties had to approve the program for government their representatives tentatively agreed to. It was practically a dead cert that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil would do so. And they did. For them, unlike the Greens, a simple majority thumbs up sufficed. Despite the fact that Green negotiators extracted an awful lot of concessions in the program from the two larger entities and the near certainty that the Irish people would not reward them for ducking what is widely deemed their responsibility to step up to the plate, prominent members objected vociferously.
In the end, logic, real politick, and a concerted push on behalf of Eamon Ryan triumphed by a bigger than expected margin over ideological rigidity and rather naïve idealism. We have a government. Micheál Martin is the new Taoiseach. His address at the close of a socially distanced Dáil sitting in Dublin’s convention centre was strong and moving, particularly when he paid homage to his family and community in Cork. Martin is a thoroughly decent and sincere person and politician. He has a tough and thankless job on his hands now, though.
The chattering classes are already turning their gaze to the dynamics of this historic arrangement and to how long it can endure. But making any predictions in this regard is unwise. It’s a funny old game, politics.
Larry Donnelly is a Boston-born attorney, a Law Lecturer at the National University of Ireland, Galway and a regular media contributor on politics, law and current affairs in Ireland and the US. Follow him on Twitter at @LarryPDonnelly.