Four. That is the width of the majority a Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael-Green Party coalition would possess if government formation talks prove successful and should no mercenaries come onboard. The stability of Fine Gael’s majority of minus 13 in their confidence and supply arrangement with Fianna Fáil during the last government would suggest that a cushion of four (need I emphasise the positive?) should be more than sufficient to create a government that could last a full term, but this would ignore the fact that we are entering into a changed landscape from that of only three months ago – COVID-19 has turned the world upside down.
Joking aside, it is hardly ideal to have a wafer-thin majority spread across three different political parties when facing into what looks likely to be the deepest recession in Irish history, along with all the associated social issues that go with that. This potential government faces enormous challenges before it is even formed – but will we get one, and perhaps more importantly, would it be stable?
The 2016 arrangement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil was largely held together by Brexit – an exogenous force unwillingly thrust upon us by our nearest neighbour’s referendum of populist, post-truth and isolationist Euroscepticism. Our economy was moving relatively smoothly, the two parties were ideologically similar, and Brexit wasn’t our fault – Fianna Fáil could stomach the thought of keeping their bitter rivals in government in the name of national solidarity. I mean, there was always the next election; and Enda, and then Leo, were bound to say something stupid eventually, right?
Fast forward to 2020 and oof…! Who saw a Big Three coming? “Alexa! Play ‘Complicated’ by Avril Lavigne”.
The main issues coming up to the general election were health, housing and an economic recovery that wasn’t felt by the majority, as the Ipsos-MRBI exit poll illustrated. Whilst the former two issues are likely to remain at the forefront of political discourse, with an improvement to both undoubtedly to be desired by the electorate, the latter has experienced a fundamental change in light of COVID-19, which will have a massive impact on the nature of investment in housing, health and other sectors of the economy.
Our focus has shifted from a striving for an equitable period of growth to a hope of mitigating economic turmoil and, in turn, human suffering – with a sharp decline in GDP and a rise in unemployment figures forecast, it is only right to do so, but this will have political consequences. Public finances will be stretched and, even in the short-term, unpopular decisions will have to be made, with one of the first being the ‘tapering’ of the COVID-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment and changes to the Wage Subsidy Scheme. Whilst currently there are “no constraints” to Ireland’s borrowing capacity according to the National Treasury Management Agency, this could change should cracks appear in the global economic landscape. This, coupled with the aloof response of some European Union member states to calls for solidarity, have raised fears of a return to austerity as experienced during the economic crisis of the late 2000’s and early 2010’s. Although, thankfully, large parts of both the economic intelligentsia and global financial institutions appear to have lost faith in these penny-pinching policies, a government unable to borrow may claim to face no choice.
So, where does that leave our three potential bedfellows? The draft document between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is full of near-universally agreeable, but some extremely vague, policies ranging from “Universal Healthcare” to “A Shared Island”, “Universal Healthcare” and “A Green New Deal” – the last of which the Greens will be most interested in. The framework is largely centre to centre-left in its ideological leanings which should be enticing to the majority of the Green Party’s members. However, it’s hard to see how some of these policies are to be actualised without a huge departure from the frugality exhibited by previous governments, with borrowing explicitly stated to play a role in stimulating the economy. The Green Party later published 17 questions which the two main parties jointly responded to, which led to some level of dissatisfaction amongst the Green Party’s membership.
Further complicating the matter is the Green’s recent experience in government when its seat count was wiped out in 2011 following its participation in the 30th Dáil – that time also in a coalition featuring Fianna Fáil, perhaps explaining the reluctance of some members to enter government with them once again. Would the Greens really want to be put in such a position so soon after achieving an electoral recovery, potentially condemning themselves to political purgatory should things turn out the same way as they did last time? It has to be a valid concern, especially considering Labour’s poor showing in 2016 after it entered government as junior partner to Fine Gael, and indeed Fianna Fáil’s role as facilitator in the previous government and their subsequent electoral disappointment could act as a further warning sign against becoming a junior partner. To top this all off, 79% of respondents to the Ipsos-MRBI exit poll expressed a wish to see a change in government or a radical change in direction, is it too big a gamble to risk that the general public’s feelings haven’t changed in light of COVID-19?
It’s a tough circle to square for the Green Party. Should they enter government they risk being held responsible for not having their voice heard when the unpopular decisions come to pass, à la 2011. Conversely, on entering government they get a chance to exercise their raison d’être – implementing the green agenda – which, as a principled political movement they should be wont to do. However, if their cost-benefit analysis lead to them making the choice not to join the coalition there’s a chance of being accused of not wanting to get their hands dirty or only wanting to sit on the side-lines. This could potentially lead to them suffering in the general election which would follow. Either way, it’s a sure thing that amongst certain, mutually exclusive members of the Irish public they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
The bottom line for the Green Party is that they need to determine whether a short-term spell in government to proactively implement their agenda outweighs the risk of an electoral collapse in the next general election and, should this occur, trust that other parties will deal with climate change as they recover. Recent history has shown that the electorate do not take kindly to junior partners in government – in choosing whether or not to become one the Green Party’s membership would be wise to consider whether they can truly reverse this trend. Otherwise it could be another decade or more in the doldrums and even more years squandered with an inadequate response to climate change; this is something we can’t afford, our children can’t afford, and, indeed, humanity cannot afford.