Or the coming months….
Spain has been without a government since December and I doubt you’ve heard of any looming crisis there. The same is true of Ireland for now (unless Brexit begins to feel like a reality, which it will).
As of March 31st (today), this government formation period is the second longest in the state (34 days). 1992 was due to FF/ Labour coalition talks which ran over Christmas. We’re two weeks away from breaking the 48 day record.
Formation talks – Who’s in and who’s out?
It appears that any TD with a lean towards the left either refused to partake, or left after a period of time. Two notable exceptions are Maureen O’Sullivan and Katherine Zappone. O’Sullivan’s decades of work with Tony Gregory has no doubt taught her the potential upside of entering government, even with the electoral risks it carries (she came very close to losing her seat). The Greens were more moderate and pragmatic, exhausting their options before amicably parting ways.
Remaining are the Independent Alliance, the so-called “Rural Alliance”, and the Healy-Raes. Michael Lowry has already committed his support for Enda Kenny and as such is not in the formal talks taking place with the others.
What are the possible formation options?
Cooperation between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is necessary for any government to form. We’ve been told that for weeks, but the table below lays it out in numbers. Only through abstention or a “grand coalition” can Ireland form a government.
I’ve tried my best to group the Independents. It isn’t easy when the “Rural Alliance” is something we’ve only heard of through media coverage, and the Independent Alliance is supposedly divided over how it will proceed (again, media coverage). But it’s the best we’ve got, otherwise the table would be too big. I’ve even grouped the non-group TDs (O’Sullivan, Lowry and Zappone) for simplicity.
The list of available options shows the upper-hand that Fine Gael has in these negotiations. It has 10 options to form, while Fianna Fáil has only 5. Remove the options with a zero seat majority and it’s 9 vs. 3. This explains why the independents are primarily meeting with Fine Gael.
So, which government forms?
A Fine Gael minority government looks likely at this point. It has been from the start. The question is when Fianna Fáil will seriously enter talks. Then we wait to see what deal emerges. Then we see which independents sign up to it. The order of events may overlap, but the destination is clear.
What if there’s a second election?
Two questions present themselves here:
- Why would one happen?
- What would change?
The answer to the first question lies with the formation talks above. If talks begin to drag on for months, then Fine Gael (with acting Taoiseach Enda Kenny) has the power to call a new election. This would be a drastic step, and would only be done if he felt it gave his party the chance to radically increase its support. Even if FG were to increase its seats, it still requires FF abstention and Independent support to rule. The status quo remains unchanged.
The answer to the second can be found with a dig through some past election data. In the early 1980s, Ireland went to the polls three times within two years. Governments did form after each one, but soon collapsed. This is a very different scenario to the one we have now, arguably in a way that makes vote changes less likely.
Even with 252/279 days separating elections, the largest vote changes were +/-3%, the margin of error on most opinion polls. Fine Gael managed a strong +7 seats at the second 1982 election, although mainly due to some GUBU events.
So, a second election is therefore unlikely. Fine Gael has no incentive for one.
So how long before we have a government?
The constitution sets no time limit. In Belgium the country went nearly two years without a government. The budget was passed with cross-party involvement and may other measures were also dealt with in parliament. Spain, as mentioned, also doesn’t have a government and is likely to face a second election in June. From there, a government may not form until the Autumn.
Ireland faces a prolonged period without a government. Brexit is one milestone (June 23rd) which may force the coming together of parties, but even then, it’s not beyond the scope of the caretaker government to manage a fall-out, especially since Fianna Fáil is unlikely to oppose a response which advances the national interest. Then there’s the budget in October, but allow me to refer to Belgium above.
Maybe we’ll never get a government?
Ah we will though.
We always do.