It has taken months. A new Government for the Republic of Ireland has been agreed among three principal coalition partners, with a detailed Programme for Government (PfG – 126 pages).
Each of the three Parties required their respective memberships to endorse the PfG Coalition. The approval could be fairly described as emphatic – 74% Fianna Fail (FF), 76% Greens, and 80% Fine Gael (FG). That is a conclusive enough endorsement to suggest that the PfG and Government might well hold for a good part of what remains of the five-year term.
It had been believed the more fundamental aspect of the Green Party might have been a larger number. The Leader of the Greens in Northern Ireland opposed the PfG because it did ‘not do enough’ for the Party’s core principles on climate and social justice, though with no chance of ever being in a Government herself she seemed to miss the point of a coalition agreement requiring compromises – and he PfG has plenty of those.
It had been thought FF internal opposition might make the vote in favour a close one. Clearly didn’t.
The big positive in this Government is that has a comfortable working majority – the formal approval of the new Taoiseach was by 93 of the possible 160 votes, larger than the three coalition Parties combined.
The last Government, starting with Enda Kenny as Taoiseach, was a minority FG Government with FF providing Confidence & Supply. While that had a good run, it was clearly never stable. FG had always to look over its shoulder knowing that ultimately FF could pull the plug whenever it wished. There were moments that seemed like a possibility but didn’t happen. Though on a glass half full consideration, while the relationship was uneasy, Martin and Varadkar have had some years of having to work together if a Government was not going to collapse.
This time there is an agreed agenda for all Parties and with commitment and focus there is every chance some significant change is possible – no matter that SF how much opines this is more of the same. That commitment and focus will be needed to face down and rise up to the challenges ahead.
Perhaps the greatest challenge in balancing priorities in the PfG will be between the Green demands for a shift from fossil fuels and Carbon targets that have every chance of placing a dampener on the prospects for growth, and the need for growth to raise the Irish economy out of the inevitable financial hole left by Covid-19. Taking the Ministries for Transport, Energy and Climate and for Communications and Culture, the Greens will be looking to protect (and expand on) the green priorities of the PfG.
How many, perhaps how speedily, the contradictions within the PfG are ironed out (or quietly deferred/abandoned) might impact on the success of this Government and its durability. With the Greens being the only Party to have had obvious red lines it will be around its priorities that cracks might first appear.
The new Taoiseach, and Government, will have a big list of challenges.
Housing and health were the two big issues of the election, and a big part of the Sinn Fein surge in votes. Those issues remain, and while there promises made in the PfG it will take enormous skill and effort to make progress.
Michael Martin will most likely improve relations with the UK – both diplomatically and with Unionism. Leo Varadkar, and his deputy Simon Coveney seemed to take every opportunity to slight the British. Micheal Martin heavily criticised the FG approach, which he described as ‘megaphone diplomancy’ and ‘triumphalism’ with regards to Brexit. On Northern Ireland and wider British-Irish relations FG was viewed as being insensitive and clumsy, particularly in relations with Unionists which have all but been broken. The role of Simon Coveney remaining at the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade might be tension point in the Government going forward, particularly with Leo Varadkar as Tanaiste (Deputy PM) close by.
While FG and the Euro-fanaticism of Varadkar put all of Ireland’s eggs in the EU’s basket, and shared a view that Brexit was a British exercise in self-harm, pronouncements never addressed the significant challenge of maintaining an open (and largely tariff-free) trade between the Republic of Ireland and the British mainland. Huge effort was placed on securing a seamless and unfettered border on the Ireland along the Irish-UK land border, but the Irish Sea was barely mentioned. Ireland, now just one of 27, could only veto a final trade agreement between the EU and UK, but the consequences would be catastrophic for the Irish economy. Ireland has no cards on the table at this point.
It is noticeable that discussion around the Irish Protocol ebbs and flows around whether the EU feels it is valuable for negotiation but is not fundamental to final trade talks. The discussion has also faded once the UK placed its approach on the table which legally meets the protocol requirements, albeit significantly less than what the EU had in mind. Meanwhile, discussion on the future of the EU and budgets continue to threaten common corporate taxation and tech taxes which are both an anathema to the current Irish economic model. The UK would have been a strong voice against such an EU move, but no longer there to hold back that direction of travel.
Covid-19, Brexit and the economy are huge issues of themselves that FF will be taking a lead on for the next two and a half years. Unpopular decisions will be on its watch. It will have to be smart to get everything right.
Lurking, almost disregarded, is Sinn Fein.
Sinn Fein becoming the Official Opposition is not inconsequential. For the first time this organisation will have access to the papers of State, in order to fulfil its constitutional role. This remains a Party that recognises no State but that which has it in the Government, with the nominal Leader as Taoiseach. The actual ‘leadership of Sinn Fein’, from which direction is taken, remains obscure and lurking in West Belfast.
Opposition is the perfect role for Sinn Fein. It is opportunistic and tactical in the moment. It has no policy other than one that serves, at any given time, to its own advancement and that of its only policy; a United Ireland in which it imagines itself as the Government. Its principle role as political party is the destruction of any other political party or movement that it sees as an impediment, or the wholesale adoption of any cause in which it can gain advantage.
This is perhaps the greatest challenge for Michael Martin, who is viscerally hated by Sinn Fein. No matter that Leo Varadkar states that the Civil War politics that has shaped Irish politics for 100 years ends in this Dail with the rapprochement between FG and FF, the echoes remain between FF and Sinn Fein. The feeling is mutual.
Fianna Fail taking on Health, Housing, Education and Public Expenditure, places the Party firmly in the front line of Opposition targets, and Sinn Fein will be only too pleased to have the opportunity to go head to head with the Party it regards its principal republican opposition.
The new Government looks to have a reasonable chance of remaining stable for a reasonable period. That said the internal contradictions of the PfG, the uncertain legacy of FG Brexit approach, and the challenges of EU budgets and direction present a formidable series of challenges for the new Taoiseach. If that were not enough challenge, the domestic agenda is perfectly suited to Sinn Fein’s campaign style that is short on alternative, long on grievance, and will chip at any weakness or perceived divergence of view within the Coalition Government.
The new Government will hope that having taken its time putting together the PfG that time will have been well spent.