Coalitions, do they work? A Brief Analysis on the History of Coalitions in Ireland

Published on 5 November 2020 at 12:04

We live in a system of government known as “representative democracy.” This means we, as a population are split into various municipal regions and vote for individuals to represent us in our Legislature. This is the law and policy making body of our tripartite system of government which stems initially from Aristotle in his work Politics and further expanded upon by Montesquieu in Spirit of Laws.  In turn, the Legislature vote for the Executive which is the governing body of our land.


Ireland has a rather unique system in comparison with other nations. We have a parliamentary democracy which involves the Legislature and the Executive being intertwined. All members of the Cabinet are members of the Oireachtas. As per Article 28.10° of the Constitution, once the Taoiseach loses their majority in the Dáil, they must resign the post thus, all cabinet ministers are forced to resign also. In modern day Irish politics, this plays a key role in the way the State is governed and who governs it. In years previous, majorities were not hard to come by, as we will discover later in this article. Today, contemporary politics relies heavily on coalitions in order to keep a government in a position to govern.


Throughout the country’s lifetime, the way governments were be formed in Ireland can be split into to two distinct periods, 1921-1948 and 1948 to the present day. Throughout our early years of independence after the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed by the plenipotentiaries sent by Eamonn de Valera, Ireland was dominated by two major political parties. Cumann na nGaedheal[1] and Fianna Fail. During the formative years of this countries life, W.T. Cosgrave’s government enjoyed a complete majority in the Oireachtas as the Anti-Treaty realm walked out of the Dáil after the vote for the Treaty was won 64 to 57 and thus the Civil War commenced.


The Pro-Treatites under Cosgrave’s party were left to set up the Free State. For a decade, spanning from 1923-1933, this party dominated General Elections and was able to consolidate power within and did not rely on any independents or the help of another party’s members of the Oireachtas to retain a valid Cabinet. Following the 1933 General Election, a new player was on top of the table.


Fianna Fáil was formed from the ambers of the Anti-Treaty side of the Civil War under de Valera and won a landslide victory. Thus followed a period of rather unfettered dominance. From 1933 all the way to 1944 there was not a single election that Fianna Fáil did not have a comfortable win. They held power completely within the firm grasp of de Valera for eleven years.


The single party government tradition that the State had been founded on was shell-shocked with the 1948 General Election. This election saw a Fine Gael, Labour Party, Clann na Poblachta, Clann na Tahlman, National Labour Party[2] and various independents. This group of political entities, with differing views on various contentious areas and asynchronous priorities came together to form what became known as the First Inter Party Government. This changed the shape and composition of many future governments we would see make the decisions and call the shots for the future of Irish politics.


In all, since the first coalition, there have been only a handful of singular party governments. We have not have had a mono-party government since the 1987 General Election. Every government we have had has been at least two parties working together to collect the necessary votes to have a majority in any proposal they put forward in the Oireachtas.


What problems does this entail? Logically, if you gather a bunch of people with concurrent views and give them a problem to solve, they will have a consensus rather easily. Be it a good or bad solution, there will be little time wasted on climatising and consideration on different objectives at play. However, in a coalition there are different parties who were elected by different people to represent them and their believes. Members of the Oireachtas are responsible to and receive their mandate from the people who put them in office as they can just as quickly as they put them in office, remove them. That is a representative democracy. Clash of heads are inevitable and obstacles on the road are almost certain, is it worth all this trouble?


The government in which we reside under as of the writing of this article is the Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Green Party Coalition which is remarkable for a number of ways. The first being the two historical titans of Irish politics, poised against each other with deep and spiteful divides in place since the Civil War are playing on the same team. Secondly because of how tight the election was. Fianna Fail received 38 seats in the Dáil, Fine Gael with 35 and the Greens joined forces to sweep a majority. Sinn Fein received 37 Although, none of the parties involved received a complete majority, is a coalition a valid form of representative democracy, is it what the people want?


The election occurred, in February 2020 in a time of uncertainty due to the ensuing Covid-19 Pandemic. Is a pragmatically slower and prima facia hesitant Executive right for the time? There has never been a time when such quick reactions were needed from an Executive composed of a coalition. The only comparison is The Emergency from 1939-1945 in which Eamonn de Valera led the Fianna Fail leadership during a time of grand and harrowing uncertainty but did not have to contend with any differing views from any other party leaders in a coalition as they had a healthy majority in the Dáil.


Lockdowns and major decisions take weeks to discuss. Three party leaders have to have their voices heard when making these decisions. Unanimous views are needed to conclude a matter. This takes valuable time when time is of the essence.


Alternatively, there is another side to this. Such decisions evidently have drastic consequences on peoples freedoms, lives and livelihood, the economy and numerous other potential areas. The list is not exhaustive, it would be impossible to list all of them. It may be a good thing that there is a degree of hesitancy. It acts as a safeguard to ensure that no decision is made without consideration and due process. 


Whether or not coalition works is a matter of ones values and own views. It can be contended that there are pros and cons, both good and bad aspects but there is a certainty, coalitions are necessary to be able to govern in today’s political playing field.



[1] Merged into Fine Gael in 1933

[2] Separate from the Labour Party

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