It is now exactly 3 months since the Irish general election on February 8th., and we still haven't had a new government formed. This sort of thing might be normal in Belgium or Italy, but is absolutely unprecedented in Ireland. Vital legislation required to fund emergency income supports during the pandemic cannot be passed because the Senate is not fully constituted until a newly elected Taoiseach can appoint his nominees.
The impasse has come about because the three largest parties, Sinn Fein (SF), Fianna Fail (FF) and Fine Gael (FG) all campaigned on a platform of not forming a coalition with one another. FF and FG are the parties which emerged from the 1922 Civil war which was fought over whether to accept an independence offer from Britain minus N. Ireland. SF are the new kids on the block formed as the political wing of the IRA which re-emerged in N. Ireland after the suppression of a civil rights campaign there.
Both FF and FG abhor SF because of its association with the IRA guerrilla war in N. Ireland which often spilled over into the Republic. SF was, until the last election only a very marginal player in electoral politics in Ireland and so this didn't matter much until now. But last February it eclipsed all other parties emerging (just about) with the largest share of the vote (25%) and would have won the largest share of the seats had it run sufficient candidates.
So now we have three parties of roughly equal size, FF (38 seats), SF (37)seats and FG (35) seats who had pledged not to coalesce with each other, and no candidate for Taoiseach with any chance of getting a majority in the 160 seat Parliament.
Over the past three months FF and FG have gradually edged towards working with each other and are currently trying to negotiate an agreed programme of government with the Greens (12 Seats) which would give them a combined 85 seats and a secure majority in Parliament.
Everyone knows the next few years are going to be extremely difficult for any party in government because Ireland faces the multiple challenges of the Covid 19 pandemic, Brexit, global trade wars, global recession, global corporate tax reform and an EU beset by problems elsewhere.
The Irish electorate has a habit of dealing harshly with any government party in power while times are hard, and especially with the minor parties in any such coalition. The Progressive Democrats disappeared after their involvement with a FF led coalition in 2007. The Greens lost all their 6 seats after their participation in the disastrous FF led government in 2011. Labour went from 37 seats to 7 after their participation in the FG led government from 2011 to 2016.
So it is hardly surprising that SF, Labour, the Social Democrats, Solidarity-People before profit parties and a plethora of independents are more than happy to stay in opposition, sniping from the sidelines, and watching as the government parties approval ratings gradually go down the toilet.
The Greens are deeply split as to whether to participate in a government led by the two conservative parties, FF and FG and now the deputy leader and leader of their negotiating team, Catherine Martin, has chosen to stand against their leader, Eamonn Ryan in a leadership election in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic and government formation negotiations.
What makes her decision to challenge his leadership so difficult to understand is that he has just led the party to unprecedented success, winning 12 seats (admittedly at least partly because SF failed to run sufficient candidates). Neither is there an obvious policy difference between them, as he has chosen her to lead the Green negotiating team in government formation talks.
Any decision to go into government on the basis of a published programme for government must be approved by two thirds of the party's membership, so it is not as if any leader of the party can over-ride the wishes of the membership. Any members unhappy with the prospect of going into coalition with the two conservative parties have a much better chance of achieving a one third blocking minority in a vote on a programme of government than winning a majority for their preferred leadership candidate.
All the leadership challenge does, at this time, is to weaken the position of party leader, Eamonn Ryan, precisely at a time when he needs to be able to maximise his negotiating leverage in the inter-party talks, and it also reinforces the party's reputation for "flakiness", i.e. a sense that they are not really attuned to the realities of power.
But it gets worse than that. Recent opinion polls have shown that the caretaker FG government, led by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, has increased its popularity from 21 to 35% since the election because of a perceived competent management of the pandemic, mainly at the expense of FF, Greens and Independents. If the government formation talks fail and the Greens leadership campaign in the middle of the negotiations is seen as being a contributory factor to that failure, FG will have a strong incentive to seek another election to reverse its dismal showing last February.
So what is the point of the leadership challenge now? Is Catherine Martin going to campaign on the basis of opposition to a programme for government she herself has negotiated? It is considered distinctly possible that the Green Party membership will oppose any negotiated coalition deal in any case, especially as they only have to achieve a one third negative vote to block it.
The smart play now, for Varadkar, is to negotiate a deal "in good faith" and watch the Green Party scupper it and their own chances in the general election he will feel perfectly justified in calling after over three months of failed negotiations. As a sometime Green voter I am especially saddened that what looks like a historic opportunity for the Greens to make a difference will have been thrown away by what can only be described as an ego-driven leadership contest.
There can be only two winners in a new general election called now in response to the failure of all parties to form a government after the February elections. FG, having been seen to have handled the pandemic reasonably well, and SF, which is seen by many of their supporters to have been unfairly excluded from all government formation talks. The fact that virtually no other party, left or right will work with SF merely increases their sense of grievance that their mandate of 25% of the vote has been disrespected and ignored.
The Greens risk going the way of the Progressive Democrats if they screw this up, losing all their seats as they did in 2011, only this time there may be no coming back. FG will consolidate their position as the leading party of the right, with FF relegated to third place and near irrelevance by SF. At least then we will conform to the conventional European model of left/right politics, something the left has been trying to achieve for the past 100 years.
But it would be a pity to see the Greens once again eliminated from Parliament after such a promising surge in the European and general elections. The electorate were crying out for a change of government, and all they got for their troubles were a plethora of parties and independents much more comfortable in opposition. Any new general election, if it comes, will be about who is prepared to lead the country through the next few difficult years. Minor parties, bit players, independents and political dilettantes need not apply.