As a FF-FG coalition has to date been ruled out, Fine Gael is doing all it can to form a minority government, says Simon Coveney
POLITICS in Ireland has changed. It’s become more polarised, more divisive, more fragmented — many traditional loyalties gone.
The old firm still exists but is weakened; partly splintered by new small parties; challenged by more radical groupings and many Independents. The election has produced a very new political landscape, reflecting the difficulties of the last eight years. We’re a month out from the election and still not close to finalising the shape of a new government.
The challenge now is how to put a stable government together that can function and last, while reflecting the change that people voted for.
It’s going to require a very different kind of politics and a willingness for political parties and individual TDs to do things they haven’t done before. That’s why it’s taking time, but it is happening.
We may not get a new government this week but we will get one. Another election would be a total failure of our political system to respond to the election result.
Forming a government requires two things: Compatibility and numbers. There are 158 TDs in Dáil Éireann, so a majority government needs 79. The problem now is that no one party is even near that number. Fine Gael is the closest at 50, but is still 29 short.
Normally, potential coalition partners are obvious post-election, but not this time. Labour numbers have fallen to just seven, and with the new Social Democrats at three, Greens at two, and 23 Independents, there are no easy match-ups. Sinn Féin has 23 seats and the AAA-PBP has six, but both groups have made it clear they have no intention of playing any part in forming a government.
That leaves Fianna Fáil, who had a good election but are still only at 44 seats — effectively 43 due to holding the Ceann Comhairle position.
The numbers alone suggest the only obvious majority government involves a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil partnership.
But both parties ruled that option out categorically during the election and sentiment hasn’t changed much since. Three weeks ago the Taoiseach did invite any party interested in being constructive to come and talk about forming a government.
The response from Fianna Fáil was blunt: Under no circumstances would they consider a coalition. This has hardened opinion within Fine Gael against reaching out again. So we focused on trying to build a political relationship with small parties, groups, and individual independents willing to talk about contributing to a stable government.
Meetings happened across the country to try to make progress. Those meetings developed into a structured dialogue in Government Buildings between Fine Gael, the Green Party, and 15 Independents from a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives.
Many, including some in Fine Gael, believed the talks would go nowhere. They were wrong.
So far we’ve had more than 40 hours of discussion over five days. We’ve produced 15 working policy documents together, focused on solutions to all the big national, urban and rural challenges.
People have been willing to move out of political comfort zones and take risks. For many Independents it’s a political risk to even engage with Fine Gael, given the nature of recent election campaigns and their political support base.
Take John Halligan, for example, a popular, straight-talking former Workers’ Party member from Waterford City. Negotiating with a blue blood Fine Gaeler like me is not exactly a natural fit, some might say.
But we have more in common than you might think, when faced with finding solutions to a housing crisis, or youth work, or the need for increased investment in hospitals.
Discussing disability with Finian McGrath, agriculture with rural Independents, or political reform with Katherine Zappone has been really productive. What was common to everyone was a determination to make things happen and not to sit on the sidelines.
Instead of being held back by political differences, we concentrated on finding common ground and pragmatic solutions with honest engagement.
It’s important to say, nothing has been agreed yet, but by Tuesday we hope to finalise a comprehensive document, reflecting all the diversity of input, as a basis for a New Partnership Government.
There are chapters on housing and homelessness, healthcare, childcare, youth development, the elderly, political reform, disability, mental health, rural revival, climate change, crime, education, urban development, the economy, and much more.
It’s not perfect and hasn’t been signed off yet, but it is progress towards a new kind of partnership in Irish politics: More inclusive, positive, and solution- focused.
Agreement on broad-based good policy is important, but the numbers of course still don’t add up. Even if all 15 Independents were to commit to a partnership in government with Fine Gael, and that’s far from certain as none have yet committed to anything, we are still only at 65 —14 short.
So unless other parties are willing to be part of a coalition we are looking at a minority government for the first time.
That means relying on parties in opposition for support on key votes or the government will fall shortly after starting.
It’s because of that instability that a clear and strong policy platform is so important. Whoever forms a minority government will need support from parties who don’t want to be tied to government but may be willing to support progressive decisions. This means an end to the perceived adversarial Punch and Judy show in the Dáil and developing a more consensus-based decision-making process. That won’t be delivered by Dáil reform alone, no matter how radical. It will take a change in attitude by government and opposition to how they relate to each other. The two Dáil sittings since the election would suggest that’s a long way off for some.
Others may have different ideas, but for me the numbers dictate only three possible outcomes in the coming weeks: A FF-FG coalition, a FG-led minority partnership government, or another election.
Given the first option has been ruled out repeatedly to date, we are going to do all we can to try to make the second option work.
Don’t expect an outcome to all of this on Wednesday when the Dáil next sits. But you can expect the pace of negotiations and the political heat to be turned up significantly this week.
Enough people are now focused on making the new realities in politics work for the people who elected us and will find a way of making the numbers and compatibility challenges add up.
I am looking forward to getting on with it.
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