Vulcan Insight

Irish Election Fallout: The rocky road to government formation

14 February 2020

The results of last week’s general election have delivered one of the biggest shocks to the political system in a century. An appetite for change has seen Sinn Féin surge to take its place as the most popular party in the country, with an impressive 24.5% share of the vote. The century long duopoly enjoyed by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael has ended, and a new political landscape has been redrawn, although what shape this might take remains unclear. Sinn Féin, who offered themselves as an alternative to the traditionally dominant establishment parties, won 37 seats with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael both suffering heavy losses to leave them on 38 and 35 seats respectively. The election results left four main pathways government formation on the table;

  1. A Sinn Féin led left wing government
  2. A Fianna Fáil / Sinn Féin government
  3. A Fianna Fáil / Fine Gael / Green government
  4. A Fianna Fáil / Green government being propped up by Fine Gael through confidence and supply

The first option of a Sinn Féin left wing government is now off the table as the parliamentary arithmetic does not allow a coalition of left-wing parties to form a government, despite Mary Lou McDonald saying that her first priority was to establish a government without Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. A Fianna Fáil/ Sinn Féin government has also been ruled out despite speculation that Micheál Martin might break his election promise of not entering into government with Sinn Féin. This week saw fierce opposition to such a coalition in the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party, leading the party to announce that they would not renege on their election promise.

As such, there is now mounting pressure for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to enter into a coalition with either the Green Party, Social Democrat Party or Independents or some combination of each. A coalition with Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party is a likely outcome which would give a degree of stability with a majority of five seats. Policy differences between the two parties are relatively minimal, as evidenced by the fact that the supply and demand arrangement has worked, at least from a policy perspective, for the last four years. Micheál Martin confirmed on Thursday evening that he would reach out to Fine Gael and other ‘like-minded’ parties over the weekend, with a view to forming a government.

Whether either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael could ever substantially recover from such a coalition is the question now plaguing political strategists. This scenario would almost certainly result in Sinn Féin becoming the main opposition party, potentially allowing them a free ride in government after the next election. There is also a concern that the electorate would not accept a grand coalition of the two main establishment parties at the crowding out of Sinn Féin, who won a bigger share of the vote. While the combined Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael vote comes in at 43%, there is no denying the electorate’s demand for change. Those within Fine Gael are now considering whether they are better off going into opposition, with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar saying that he is likely to be leader of the opposition in the new Dáil. The fourth option of a Fianna Fáil / Green government being propped up by Fine Gael through a confidence and supply arrangement is unlikely to be palatable to Fine Gael members, who saw the disastrous effects of the confidence and supply on Fianna Fáil.

The formation of the next government remains unclear, with the possibility of another election not yet ruled out. It has been calculated that Sinn Féin could have won up to 55 seats if they had fielded additional candidates, therefore, Fianna Fáil will do their upmost to avoid another election. While it took almost 70 days to form a government in the 2016, it does not appear that the formation of government will be any quicker or more straightforward this time around.