Unlikely allies, Unlikely Governments, The Makings of Coalitions

Published on 6 February 2021 at 18:36

The past year has been one of the most unprecedented and trying times for Ireland and the world, with the new year looking much the same, depressing and uncomfortably long. Nobody can say, that when they went into the voting booths on the 8th of February last year, that they partially or fully based their voting preference on who they thought would best fight a global pandemic. In most instances, at the time of the election the only whisper of Covid-19 was a short headline on the media about a strange virus identified in Wuhan. 


Nonetheless, Election 2020 was a milestone for this country, two sworn political party enemies joining forces along with the Greens to form a Government, to exclude a popular opponent and to guide the nation through the pandemic.


This Country‘s ability to form government coalitions, despite outside criticisms at times, is certainly commendable. In our history we have had 13 Coalition governments with most lasting their full elected term. Some parties are better at doing it than others, most notably Fine Gael and the Labour Party, though the latter has suffered greatly the last time it was in government. 


Whenever talking about coalition, one must talk about compromise. Coalition means compromise, for a greater good and often shows a better representation of the electoral response. It is on the point of compromise that many people have forgotten.


In the last election, it is without a doubt that Sinn Fein, performed exceptionally well, and took advantage of an unpopular government while offering ambitious left-wing solutions to many of the pressing issues. Along with other minor left-wing parties like the Greens and the new Social Democrats, they greatly energised the younger vote by portraying the much needed ‘winds of change’.


Though Sinn Fein learned the hard way during their moment in the sun, the importance of humility with a hard nose, along with pragmatic compromise in trying to negotiate coalition deals. 


What many people failed to understand, many of them especially in Sinn Fein, was that just because your party did particularly well relative to every other party does not guarantee you the reins of power. Now you could argue that it certainly does not help that the other larger parties already pledged not to even talk to you about coalition grandeur.


In some respects, you could be correct, but that might tell you more about how your party acts rather than how others act. This is how the now ruling coalition was formed largely with the breakdown of talks to Sinn Fein and as Diarmaid Ferriter put it, finding a ‘common purpose’ among key issues, but crucially in managing Covid-19.


After any Election, especially the likes of the one last year, trying to form a government comes down to a plain numbers game, whoever reaches the 80-seat majority gets into power. Only one Party has ever really been able to rule on their own in this country, either through an outright majority or deals with independent politicians to get them over the line.


Therefore, any party who runs on a radical manifesto and only contests a certain number of seats below the 80-seat majority, is bound to let its voters down if it manages to form a government. The famous Pat Rabbitte line, who was a former Labour Coalition Minister, of “isn’t that what you tend to do during an election”, is certainly a stark reminder to political parties and to the electorate.


To use another quote, though this time, Otto Von Bismarck’s, “politics is the art of the possible, the attainable, the art of the next best”. To make grand promises of vast public spending or even stringent public cuts, can be great vote winners, but they are just as bad vote losers, when you fail to follow through on them. Often when coalitions are formed, it is these broad promises that are heavily watered down, often into a disappointing post-election gesture.


When looking to the future of the Irish political scene, it is very possible that we have begun to see the formation of a stark left-right political spectrum, ditching the coalitions of consensus.


The left bloc being led Sinn Fein and the centre to centre-right consisting of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. Many things depend on how the current Coalition handles the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and in doing so guiding the Country back to regular life, which is no easy task and to say it is going smoothly, is far from the truth. 


The issues that the 2020 election did not go away, homeless people are still dying on our streets, young people still cannot afford houses, Brexit repercussions and crucially how the pandemic has really shown the sorry state of our health services along with how poorly we value the people who work in it. I do not know who is going to be the next government and I am not going to posit any predictions in who might win.


The only thing I will say, is to vote. Though do so with knowledge that all Parties make promises, some that are totally unrealistic while others are workable policies, do so knowing that the party you vote for might end up in coalition with a party you necessarily did not vote for, or not even in government at all. Nonetheless, vote on a purely informed basis, not on a single-issue pledge, but on a broad view that you think is right for you and your fellow citizens.

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