In any representative democracy government formation is often a complicated and painful process. However, the general election saw perhaps the most fundamental shift in Irish politics since the civil war. The traditional big parties of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have lost their duopoly and now face a third party in Sinn Féin who also see themselves as a party ready to lead a government. But how will this all play out? Can Irish politics adjust to this new reality?
Given the arithmetic of the 33rd Dáil, there is no clear path to form a government. In fact, each possible route to the 80 seats needed for a majority seems very unlikely and clouded in political and ideological problems. Even if two of the biggest three parties go into coalition, they will still need support from more TD’s to form a government. Also, there is a political dimension to all of this. Between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, it would be politically advantageous for each party to go into opposition while the other goes into coalition with Sinn Féin. Both parties contain members and politicians alike who are vehemently opposed to any dealings with Sinn Féin.
After the election of Fianna Fail’s Seán Ó Fearghaíl as Ceann Comhairle, both Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin now come to the negotiation table with an equal number of Dáil seats of 37 with Fine Gael just behind on 35. Clearly any government formed would require two of the big parties. While the traditional civil war parties have ruled out deals with Sinn Féin, it is difficult to ignore the fact that Sinn Féin won the popular vote. If no government is formed and a second election is called it is very likely that with more candidates running, Sinn Féin will win even more seats. Is this enough to motivate Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to put aside their long-held differences and build a government together? So far, the answer has been no. They are not parties used to working together and have both enjoyed trading power for almost a century.
Sinn Féin’s attempts to form a government without the big two parties have so far failed and look very unlikely. The numbers are simply not there. It has also expressed a willingness to work with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael but has so far failed to convince either that its past is fully behind it and that they could share a compromising programme for government. Clearly, in this high stakes political environment, parties will have to shift drastically to form a government or else we could be facing another general election the likes of which we have never seen before.
Conor Paterson – Politics Editor