At the time of writing, it has been 129 days since Ireland’s general election. In many ways, it feels much longer. Since polling day on 8 February, social, political and economic life have been upended by the coronavirus.
Already liable to be fraught and lengthy by virtue of the new parliamentary arithmetic thrown up by the election, the pace of coalition formation talks has been positively glacial.
Political bandwidth has been largely taken up by other, more immediately life-and-death matters. Despite having been roundly rejected at the polls, Leo Varadkar’s Fine Gael-led government has remained in situ throughout and has been confronted with arguably some of the toughest challenges facing any government in the history of the state.
Varadkar has been widely regarded as having handled the crisis well – especially in juxtaposition to his British counterpart, who is generally seen in Ireland as having catastrophically bungled his response to the pandemic – with recent polling putting his approval rating at a whopping 75%.
But as Ireland has recently begun to accelerate the lifting of lockdown, the pressure to get on with the business of forming a new government has grown.
It is a sign of the severity of the coronavirus crisis that the coming together of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to produce a framework for coalition negotiations in April passed with so little fanfare.
The rivalry between these two parties – which has its origins in the Irish Civil War – has defined the course of Irish politics for decades, though in practice, there is very little that separates them ideologically.
Since drafting a framework agreement in April, both parties have been keen to secure the involvement of a smaller party to complete their coalition, both to guarantee a stable majority (between them Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have 72 of the Dáil’s 160 seats) and to act as a political ‘mudguard’.
Labour and the Social Democrats both ruled this out, and the spotlight quickly fell on the Green Party, who increased their tally of Dáil seats in February’s election from two to 12.
As the Greens have been burnt once before by being a junior coalition partner, their leader Eamon Ryan faced resistance to taking his party into coalition talks in the first place, and continuous criticism throughout the talks process.
Opponents to entering talks included his own deputy, Catherine Martin, who – in accordance with party rules that mandate a leadership contest following a general election – will now be challenging him for the leadership.
Despite having voted against involvement in coalition talks at the outset, Martin went on to lead the Green delegation in the negotiations around government formation.
That she has since lent her endorsement to the Programme for Government that has emerged from these talks is perhaps the best indication of the extent of the ‘wins’ her party appears to have banked from them.
The programme document, ‘Our Shared Future’, runs to some 126 pages. It contains a number of key policy commitments on climate change, including a legal target of an average of a seven percent reduction in carbon emissions per annum from 2021 to 2030 (a 51% reduction over the decade).
A target of net zero emissions by 2050 will also be enshrined in law within the first 100 days of government, and retrofitting of houses for greater energy efficiency forms a key part of a ‘green new deal’.
There will be no new issuing of licenses for gas exploration and extraction, and a ban on the import of fuels derived from fracking.
In the related area of transport, there is a commitment to a 2:1 split in capital spending on public transport and roads, and to 10 percent of total transport spending being allocated to cycling. The registration of new petrol and diesel cars will be banned after 2030, and carbon taxes will increase to €100 per tonne.
In seeking to deal with the economic fallout of Covid-19, the programme for government does not seem to imply an immediate return to the type of austerity that was characteristic of the Irish response to the global financial crisis and economic downturn after 2008.
It promises a ‘recovery fund’, a focus on job creation, ongoing support for SMEs and special supports for the hospitality, arts and entertainment sectors. It does, however, stress the need for deficit reduction once the impact of the pandemic has passed, through tax and spending measures.
Preparing for the end of the Brexit transition, including in the event that no trade deal is reached between the UK and the EU, remains a key strategic priority. Promises on housing – a key issue in the February election, and a driver of Sinn Féin’s substantial electoral successes – are notably vague.
A big policy win for the Greens is the commitment to ending so-called Direct Provision, the critically flawed system by which asylum seekers in Ireland are housed while their applications are processed.
However, proposals to replace it with a new system of accommodation that ‘has the protection and promotion of human rights at its core’ will warrant close scrutiny.
Of the measures outlined in the PFG, among the most relevant for British observers are those pertaining to a ‘shared island’.
These include a new unit within the Taoiseach’s office which will work towards ‘consensus on a shared island’, a strategic review of the British-Irish relationship, the consolidation of North-South co-operation and strengthening of ‘Strand 3’ institutions like the British-Irish Intergovernmental Council (BIIGC), and a deepening of Ireland’s relationships with the devolved governments of Wales and Scotland.
Given the Greens’ key role – as an all-island party – in politics north of the border, that the PFG provides a formal, governmental pathway for their involvement in the evolving constitutional conversation is a particularly welcome development.
That is, of course, assuming that ‘Our Shared Future’ is able to clear its final hurdle – the approval of the Fianna Fáil and, particularly, Green grassroots.
As noted above, there is substantial unease within sections of the Green party about the prospect of entering coalition with the two centre-right civil war parties, which has not been mollified by concerns about the achievability of some of the key commitments in the programme for government.
The party leadership faces an uphill struggle to secure the two-thirds majority in favour it needs to enter government.
And, despite attempts to steal a march on (and in some cases, entire policies from) Sinn Féin, all of the three potential coalition parties will be nervous about the prospect of Mary Lou McDonald becoming the leader of the opposition: a position from which she will look to mount a formidable electoral challenge when Ireland next goes to the polls.
By Jonathan Evershed, Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Government and Politics at University College Cork.