Gary Murphy: A loveless three-party coalition could work

The Green Party agreeing to form a government with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will be fraught with risks, but with no dominant party it’s a union that can actually last, says Gary Murphy
Gary Murphy: A loveless three-party coalition could work
Green Party leader Eamon Ryan outside Government Buildings on Merron Street Dublin Photo:Gareth Chaney/Collins

The Green Party agreeing to form a government with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will be fraught with risks, but with no dominant party it’s a union that can actually last, says Gary Murphy

NO sooner will a deal be signed than the critics will be out.

Some commentators have predicted that this coalition government will be the most hated in the history of the State: Just because.

Accusations of treachery are being hurled at the Greens for selling out by having the temerity to go in to government in the hope of making things better for all citizens.

But if being in politics is about anything, it is about getting things done for those who place their vote, and thus their trust, in those who seek election. And that means being in power.

Elections and their outcomes have become increasingly complex in post-economic crash Ireland. The elections of 2011, 2016, and 2020 sundered the Irish party system.

The result has been that coalition government, once relatively straightforward to negotiate, has become the stuff of political nightmares.

Once Fianna Fáil decided to break one of its core values and enter coalition, in 1989, with the Progressive Democrats, its centrist appeal looked like it could enable the party to govern in perpetuity.

The Progressive Democrats, in 1989, 1997, 2002, and 2007, Labour, in 1992, and the Greens, in 2007, had all been persuaded to enter government with Fianna Fáil, which was also skilled at doing deals with Independents.

By accepting coalition, Fianna Fáil opened itself up to alliances that would once have been the preserve of Fine Gael. Such coalition-building was based on the presumption of Fianna Fáil polling in its normal 40% range, thus giving it the possibility of choosing alternative coalition partners. After the party’s brutal rejection by the electorate in 2011, this was clearly no longer the case.

For its part, Fine Gael’s coalition history was based on the party polling somewhere in the range of 30% or so, thus allowing it to coalesce with the Labour Party.

From the time Fine Gael first entered government, in 1948, in leading the inter-party government (in reality an anti-Fianna Fáil alliance), it viewed itself and the Labour Party as the natural coalition alternative to Fianna Fáil.

But the precipitous drop in Fine Gael’s election strength in 2016 and 2020 and the collapse of Labour’s support have rendered this option nothing more than a historical artifact.

Before February’s election, a grand coalition between the two parties that have led every government in the State’s history looked extremely unlikely.

While then Fine Gael leader, Enda Kenny, did offer Micheál Martin this option during the 2016 government negotiations, it was never taken very seriously by Fianna Fáil.


Nothing changed in between the elections of 2016 and 2020 to make it a realistic prospect. In fact, the weariness and frustration Fianna Fáil exhibited in the latter stages of the confidence-and-supply arrangement were palpable. It couldn’t wait to oust Fine Gael from government buildings.

Before the election was called, it was widely assumed that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would have significantly more seats between them than the 80 required for an overall majority.

But rather than the grand coalition, such a result would enable whichever had the most seats to cast around for other partners to form a coalition. The likely suspects were the Greens, Labour, the Social Democrats, and various Independents. ‘Anybody but Sinn Féin’ was the mantra.

Last February’s election was the most extraordinary in the history of the State, because of Sinn Féin’s breakthrough.

Equally astounding, however, was the fact that between them, the two Civil War parties won only 72 of the 159 seats, on 43% of the vote. Fianna Fáil had received 41.6% as recently as 2007; Fine Gael 36% in 2011.

In one way, it has been no surprise that the government-formation talks have taken so long. The larger the coalition hydra, the more difficult it is to form and to then keep together. Three-headed coalitions worked between Fine Gael, Labour, and Democratic Left, from 1994 to 1997, and between Fianna Fáil, the Greens, and the Progressive Democrats, from 2007 to 2011.

But the existential angst the talks have spawned within the Green Party is well-merited. Of the previous three-headed coalitions, the Progressive Democrats and Democratic Left no longer exist. Labour was all but fatally damaged by its participation in the 2011-16 government and is still comatose.

The Greens barely survived their one outing in government, from 2007 to 2011. Their bravery in going in again is in many ways nothing short of heroic and is in marked contrast to Labour and the Social Democrats, who have both decided that being in government is for other parties this time around. It makes both parties’ complaints about the potential dropping of the children’s ministry last week nothing short of laughable.

What were the Greens supposed to do in the light of the climate-change crisis? Declare it can wait? Clearly, entering government is a decision fraught with risk and it will be interesting to see how it plays out with the newer members of the Greens. It has the potential to alienate the party’s burgeoning younger supporters.

Catherine Martin’s decision to challenge Eamon Ryan for the leadership, on the back of the Greens’ best-ever election results, looks increasingly odd, considering that she has now given her backing to the deal.

So both candidates will be campaigning for the same thing in the leadership election.

A grassroots membership rejection of the deal will send the Greens into an existential crisis from which there might be no escape.

But if the membership decide to go in, they will do so with some trepidation. Still, there is reason to hope. The common perception is that smaller parties always suffer coming out of coalition government. There is much truth to this.

From the first and second inter-party governments, between 1948-1951 and 1954-57, Clann na Poblachta, Clann na Talmhan, and National Labour all quickly disappeared.

Of the modern coalitionists, the Progressive Democrats and Democratic Left have also exited the political stage. But both were integral parts of relatively successful governments.

Democratic Left proved reliable and innovative partners to Fine Gael and Labour, between 1994 and 1997, before eventually throwing their lot in with Labour at the beginning of 1999.

The Progressive Democrats had a huge influence on Fianna Fáil, particularly during the two Bertie Ahern-led governments, between 1997 and 2007. The neoliberal economics that characterised those governments was driven by the smaller party. What has changed now for coalitions is that there is no large party.

Instead, we will have the two behemoths of modern Irish politics in government with equal numbers of Cabinet seats, without either having received the most votes in the election.

In essence, they have been forced into government and, notwithstanding their own concerns, have persuaded the Greens to come on board.

It is likely to be as loveless a coalition as ever there was in Ireland. It will also be attacked unmercifully from the opposition benches as being a harbinger of austerity.

Yet while it faces huge challenges, if it governs competently, openly, and honestly, it could well surprise those who have already doomed it to political defeat.

Gary Murphy is professor of politics at Dublin City University

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