After more than two months of wrangling, Ireland finally has its new government. The 26 February election resulted in a hung parliament and left the country without official leadership until two weeks ago. The electorate, which in 2011 wasted no time in booting out the Fianna Fáil-Green coalition that had presided over the worst recession years, also delivered a decisive blow to its Fine Gael and Labour successors.
Although Fine Gael is still the largest party it lost 26 seats, while Labour crashed by 30 to deliver the worst performance in its history. With a Fianna Fáil comeback, a rise in Sinn Féin support, and gains for smaller parties and independents, there was plenty to play for over the long negotiation period that followed.
At a time when Ireland is once again Europe’s fastest growing economy, the debates over government formation were largely dominated by other issues. Chief among these was Irish Water, the commercial semi-state company established by the previous government in 2013 to take over the management of water and wastewater services from local authorities.
The organisation, which began billing residents (who did not previously pay directly for water) in 2014, had become a key target for anti-government protests. Several parties campaigned in large part on a platform to reform or abolish it, while Fine Gael remained adamant about continuation with the current programme, resulting in deadlock between it and potential partners.
Eventually, Prime Minister Enda Kenny’s party was forced to concede to Fianna Fáíl, agreeing to temporarily suspend water charges while they are reviewed by an independent expert commission. As a result, the two largest parties in parliament were able to reach a confidence and supply agreement, under which Fianna Fáil has agreed to support Fine Gael’s programme for government for three budget cycles.
This paved the way for the formation of a Fine Gael minority government with the support of nine independent TDs (MPs), and the re-election of Kenny as prime minister on 6 May. The new cabinet was confirmed shortly afterwards, with independents taking up ministerial posts in the areas of transport, communications, and children. Under the new ‘Programme for a Partnership Government’, five priority areas of housing, health, rural broadband, budgetary reform and childcare have been identified for special attention within the first 100 days of the administration.
With a government now in place, parties outside it are also able to get on with key decisions in moving forward with their strategies for the future. As in much of Europe, the greatest challenges are those facing the centre left. After Labour’s bruising electoral experience, Joan Burton has announced her resignation as party leader and nominations for her replacement close today. The incoming leader will have to drive Labour in a new direction if it is to claw back some of the support it has lost.
The damage done by its association with the government’s austerity programme will not be easily repaired, with large numbers of traditional Labour voters remaining disillusioned by its apparent preference for protecting the middle rather than the working class. Debate has begun within the party on who might best steer them back on course, with deputy leader Alan Kelly and former minister for public expenditure and reform Brendan Howlin already identified as possible contenders. As well as the internal soul-searching after such a huge defeat, Labour also faces considerable, and considerably emboldened, competition on the left.
The Social Democrats, who were formed in July 2015 and took three seats in the election, will be keen to make their voices heard emphatically and as soon as possible. Two of the elected TDs have previously represented Labour, but all had been independents immediately prior to this session of the Dáil (parliament). The dominance of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil has always made it difficult for small parties to get off the ground, but the initial success of the new party (unlike the high-profile but ill-fated rightwing Renua) is promising, and might have been greater had it not been disadvantaged by a short campaigning window which began only three weeks before the election. Their aim is to supplant Labour as the main party of the moderate left by positioning themselves as a purer brand of social democrat, in contrast to Labour, tainted as they have become to many progressives, by their perpetual association with the conservative Fine Gael.
As fights about Irish Water move into a new phase as a result of the government agreement, the two parties have been quick to speak up on the issue. Labour is calling for refunds for anyone who paid Irish Water charges prior to the election, while the Social Democrats want Irish Water in its current form to be abolished and replaced with a fully public body. Just as how to pay for water has become the key differentiator in the battle to lead the centre right so it has become for the centre left.
And the republican party Sinn Féin remains the loudest opponent of water charges; with the additional nine seats it won in February, its voice on this and other issues is only likely to get louder. Having siphoned off a sizeable chunk of support from Labour in the election, Sinn Féin remains a growing threat to all parties in the centre. Likewise, the far-left Anti Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit group, which holds six seats – the same as the now much-reduced Labour – and mobilised people from all walks of life around opposition to water charges, will be eager to undermine the new government, and ‘establishment’ Labour, at every turn.
Both politicians and the Irish public may feel relieved at having quashed the spectre of fresh elections for now, but like all minority governments, this one will be fragile. The long period of indecision has undermined public confidence in all elected representatives, including Enda Kenny, whose approval ratings dropping to just 26 per cent during the time frame of the negotiations. Moving forward successfully will require not just the upholding of a delicate political deal, but realistic efforts to move beyond water issues and address other top public concerns such as health, housing and homelessness.