Listen to the Voice of Change
February 19, 2020
Ireland’s election on February 8 yielded a fractured political landscape in which no party gained a clear plurality—and far from a majority—in the Dáil, ushering in an unstable political era. There were, however, clear winners and losers: Sinn Féin won the popular vote and gained its highest vote percentage ever (24.5 percent, although it did not field candidates in all constituencies and thus did not get the most seats) while the two main parties, Fine Gael (FG), the outgoing incumbent, and Fianna Fáil (FF), the party blamed for the financial crisis in 2010, lost close to ten seats each. Sinn Féin was first to try to form a coalition but failed when FF leader Micheál Martin made clear on February 13 that his party would not join Sinn Féin in any coalition after his suggestion to explore such an option was soundly rejected by FF frontbenchers.
With Sinn Féin unable to form a government, rumors of a FF-FG coalition supported by the Greens or Social Democrats are now swirling. Sinn Féin has described this coalition as “unthinkable.” There is limited enthusiasm among the FG faithful for this option as many in the party believe they must go into opposition to regain legitimacy after 9 years in government. Social Democrat co-leader Róisín Shortall also has made clear such a coalition would not reflect change.
Irish political leaders should resist the impulse to form of a German-style grand coalition. The voters sought change on February 8; what they would receive instead is creative arithmetic to keep the most popular party out of government. In Berlin, the third grand coalition government of the two largest parties has been politically impotent, devastating to the junior member of the coalition (Social Democrats (SPD)), and harmful to the largest party (Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU)) as it continues to lose popularity to far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). CDU is now in the midst of an identity crisis: the current leadership of the party refuses to form any state coalition with AfD but some in the CDU believe the party should be more open to the AfD in order to bring recalcitrant AfD voters back into the CDU fold. This is an important lesson for both FF and FG leaders: there is great political cost to a grand coalition.
Parties and politicians must relinquish power and work to regain voters’ trust. Both FF and FG must focus on renewal, not preservation of their power. The search for something “new” and bold in Western political life to solve difficult problems has taken on greater urgency and has ushered in new—and previously unacceptable—political voices. Many of these voices carry the weight of some truly horrific history, such as Sinn Féin’s previous ties to the IRA, the AfD’s connection to fascist and xenophobic voices in Germany, or the far-right Vox party in Spain. It is extremely hard to contemplate bringing these new voices into government. Some could rightly argue it is an irresponsible act. But the nature of this Western political moment demands some reflection. By contorting coalition math to keep Sinn Féin out of government, FF and FG will only make Sinn Féin grow stronger as they become the only legitimate voice of opposition. Over time, FF and FG will make their parties, their leaders, and their political brands weaker, eventually trapping both sides in a coalition that becomes both their political undoing and a prison of their own making—as is the case in Germany today. They cannot leave this prison without ceding power to Sinn Féin
Two coalition options are possible at the moment: FF could form a minority government with a confidence-and-supply agreement with FG and other parties—the exact reverse of the last government and yet another sign that change is not on offer—; or Fianna Fáil could form a so-called grand coalition with Fine Gael with the support of either the Greens or Social Democrats.
As controversial as it may be, the best outcome could be to allow Sinn Féin to form a government or be part of a governing coalition now. Doing so would allow other parties and voters to hold them responsible for governing and implementing (or not) their policies. It would also allow one of the two largest parties to guide Sinn Féin in government while the other becomes a vibrant opposition voice that holds the coalition accountable. There are uncertainties and risks to this strategy to be sure, but a strong coalition partner in government with Sinn Fein and a strong opposition party out of government mitigates risk and increases stability.
The new Dáil meets on Thursday, February 20, and must choose its next Taoiseach (prime minister). As things stand, it will be unable to do so and the current Taioseach, Leo Varadkar, will remain in a caretaker capacity until the political stalemate is broken. A formal coalition formation process has not even begun; depending on which parties are involved in a future coalition, the decision to go into government would have to approved by a majority of those parties. This will take a long time, during which a caretaker government cannot initiate new policies and thus address the most immediate concerns of voters: the housing and healthcare crises.
At some point, Ireland may experience a Sinn Féin-led government and political leaders should consider the trade-off between a Sinn Féin-only government in the future or a coalition of sorts with Sinn Féin (or confidence-and-supply) today in which they could retain some say over the direction of such a government. Ireland’s political leaders should listen to voters; if they do not, voters will exact a price, as they always do.