By Conor Little (University of Copenhagen)
Ten weeks after the general election of 26 February, after the longest government formation process in its history, Ireland has a minority coalition government of Fine Gael – which, under Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Enda Kenny, has been the main incumbent since 2011 – and several non-party (‘Independent’) TDs (members of parliament). The government is supported by the Fianna Fáil party, led by Micheál Martin, through a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement under which its TDs abstained in the Prime Minister’s vote of investiture on 6 May.
The results of the general election of February 2016 (see table) presented a curious configuration: a ‘loser’ of the election (Fine Gael), which remained the largest party and a ‘winner’ (Fianna Fáil) that held less than a quarter of the seats, but gained more seats than any other party since the previous election.
Crucially for the government formation process that was to follow, it resulted in a highly fragmented parliament. Fragmentation, according to Laakso and Taagepera’s measure stood at 4.9 ‘effective parties’ in parliament, up from 3.6 at the 2011 election, and at a level never seen before in Ireland. There were a number of factors that contributed to this level of fragmentation. The largest party (Fine Gael) held less than one-third of the seats. At the other end of the scale, the number of small parties grew due to the emergence of new parties on the left and centre-left, the re-entry into parliament of the Green Party, and a heavy defeat for the Labour Party after five years as the junior partner in government. Non-party candidates achieved success on an unprecedented scale, with nineteen elected, as well as the four TDs of the Independents 4 Change party, which is a coalition of left-wing Independents.
Fine Gael had approached the election expecting to extend its tenure into a second consecutive term for the first time since its predecessor, Cumann na nGaedheal, did so in the 1920s. This was complicated by its unexpectedly poor result, the very poor result of its coalition partner (the Labour Party), and by the positions taken by each of the main parties on coalition ahead of the election. Enda Kenny, had ruled out ‘doing business’ with the Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, or with Sinn Féin; he also ruled out ‘dealings’ with Independents. Martin had rejected the prospect of coalition with either Fine Gael or Sinn Féin; Fianna Fáil had also changed its rules since the last election such that participation in government would have to be put to a special members’ conference. Sinn Féin had ruled out entering government as a junior partner and after the election it reconfirmed that it would not enter coalition with either of the major parties.
However, government coalition was not the only possible mode of cooperation between the parties. In Ireland, the Prime Minister must have the confidence of the 158-member Dáil, but this means getting the support of a relative majority of those voting (yes or no) in a confidence vote, rather than an absolute majority of TDs. Abstentions lower the threshold for gaining that relative majority, thus effectively supporting any proposed government. In the new Dáil, and taking into account the election of a Fianna Fáil TD as the Speaker of the House (Ceann Comhairle) who does not vote except in instances where there is a tie, Fianna Fáil’s abstention would lower the threshold required by a Fine Gael-led government to 58, while Fine Gael’s abstention would lower the threshold for a Fianna Fáil-led government to 54. Underpinning efforts to find a solution were not just the incentives of policy and higher office, but also TDs’ strong desire to avoid a costly and risky second general election in Ireland’s competitive, candidate-centred political system.
The long formation process
The new Dáil met for the first time on 10 March, electing a Speaker but failing to elect a Prime Minister. Until mid-April, both party leaders sought the support of Independent TDs and small parties for their nomination as Prime Minister. By mid-April, Fine Gael had received the support of two non-party TDs: former Fine Gael minister Michael Lowry and Katherine Zappone, who was a leading campaigner marriage equality ahead of Ireland’s same-sex marriage referendum in 2015. This brought their tally to 52.
The Social Democrats, the Green Party and the Labour Party each opted out of joining government after varying degrees of engagement with the major parties. During negotiations, there was some coordination among Independent TDs. Six TDs were part of the pre-election alliance known as the Independent Alliance (which was not a registered political party); another five rural Independents formed a looser group during the negotiations. Initial talks between Independents and each of the two major parties took place in March and April, but most Independents would not agree to support either until the two major parties had come to an arrangement that would set the policy parameters and make viable any proposed government.
The two party leaders met for preliminary discussions in early April, at which point the Fine Gael leader, Kenny, proposed a government coalition to Martin. Although several Fianna Fáil MPs favoured coalition, Martin opposed it, his Parliamentary Party rejected it, and the party briefed that the members, too, would reject it if the proposal came to a party conference. On 11 April, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael began formal negotiations and on 14 April, Fianna Fáil effectively bowed out of the contest to lead the next government by telling Independents that if a significant number did not vote for him, he would not continue to seek support for his election as Prime Minister.
In the immediate post-election period, Fianna Fáil had driven the media agenda, quickly putting two issues – water charges and political reform – to the fore. The task of agreeing on parliamentary reforms was largely delegated to an all-party parliamentary committee. Water charges had been introduced under the previous government and had proven a rallying point for anti-austerity mobilisation. These charges – and the future of the state’s new water utility – became the most salient and time-consuming issue in negotiations between the parties. While Fianna Fáil’s position is that they agree in principle with water charges but wanted them suspended for a number of years, and while only 8% of voters (and even fewer Fianna Fáil voters) cited this as a decisive issue, it was a central issue for voters to the left of Fianna Fáil and to many of the party’s Independent competitors; hence its strategic importance. Moreover, in a parliament in which a majority of TDs opposed water charges, it was likely to quickly become an issue that could destabilise a new government. On the other side of the negotiating table, Fine Gael feared punishment from its voters who had paid their charges and from its party organisation which had suffered local election defeats because of them. The Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil talks concluded with a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement at the end of April, which set out some broad policy parameters; specified a suspension and review of water charges; and they agreed that, if Fine Gael could muster support from among the Independents, Fianna Fáil would abstain in votes of confidence and on budgetary measures.
This was folowed by final rounds of negotiations with Independent TDs. On Thursday 5 May, Fine Gael set a deadline by putting a vote for Prime Minister on the next day’s Dáil agenda, to the fury of the Independents with whom it was negotiating. The afternoon of the vote was dramatic. Negotiations with Independents continued as speeches on the nomination of Prime Minister proceeded inside the Dáil chamber. There was uncertainty as to which of the Independents (and, more importantly, how many) would appear in the chamber to vote in support of the new government.
Fine Gael carried the vote with 59 votes for Enda Kenny, 49 votes against, and 49 abstentions. The government was supported by nine Independents: the two Independents who had committed to support it early in the process; five of the six Independent Alliance TDs; and two rural Independent TDs. Fianna Fáil abstained, as did four Independents and the two Green Party TDs. While these additional abstentions lowered the majority threshold to 55, Fianna Fáil made it clear that their support was conditional on Kenny getting at least 58 votes.
The new government
Kenny’s election was followed by the nomination of his fourteen senior cabinet ministers. Four Fine Gael ministers, including three with the most prestigious portfolios (Finance, Justice, Foreign Affairs) retained their positions and four senior ministers were moved within cabinet. Three Fine Gael TDs – one junior minister and two backbenchers – were newly appointed as senior ministers, as were three Independents: Katherine Zappone, who had committed herself to the coalition early in the negotiation process; Denis Naughten, a former Fine Gael TD from the rural grouping of Independents; and Shane Ross, who was effectively the leader of the Independent Alliance. With only four women among the fourteen senior cabinet ministers appointed (and only three among the twelve Fine Gael ministers), it is far from the gender-balanced cabinet that Kenny said, in January 2016, that he would like to achieve.
Kenny has also reconfigured some government departments: newly configured departments include Housing, Planning and Local Government; Communications, Climate Change and Natural Resources; and Regional Development, Rural Affairs, Arts and the Gaelteacht (Irish-speaking areas). The establishment of a Housing and Regional Development/Rural Affairs portfolios reflects the need to be seen to prioritise these issues in response to a crisis in housing and pressure from rural TDs, respectively.
In addition to the short written agreement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, the negotiations yielded a 160-page Programme for Government. With the longevity of the government in doubt, both due to doubts about Independents’ capacity to defend unpopular government policies and about Fianna Fáil’s willingness to maintain its support for the government, the most relevant parts of the Programme seem to be those that will be implemented in the short-term.
Pressure for additional spending will be high, to fulfil the aims of the agreement with Fianna Fáil, to satisfy the Independents in government, to satisfy other parties with whom the government may need to come to agreements in parliament, and from regular sources, such as the routine (and very large) health budget over-runs. More generally, the operation of parliamentary business will demand new practices and the adoption of new norms, as the government will need to build shifting majorities on some issues and may need to accept defeat by alternative majorities on others.
Among the many open questions posed by this government will be the adaptation of the typically anti-establishment Independents to government. That one of their number (the new Transport Minister) publicly called Kenny a ‘political corpse’ early in the government formation process and then, at the end of that process, proceeded to breach protocol by announcing his appointment as Minister for Transport to the media before the Prime Minister had done so suggests that relations with some Independents may become a regular feature of this government.
Underlying the new government is the most fragmented Dáil since 1927 and that Dáil has yielded a government with the smallest seat share since the government that held office in mid-1927. In 1927, there was a second election in later that year. A second election in 2016 remains a distinct possibility.