Alan O’Kelly is a political activist based in London.
As we move into autumn, Irish political life is looking towards an intensely busy and changeable period in the months ahead.
Since summer 2020, Ireland has been governed by a three-way coalition with Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Greens in government. Sinn Féin, who despite having the highest vote share failed to run sufficient candidates in the election to take advantage of this, are the main opposition party.
It hard to overstate the paradigm-shattering nature of the Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael coalition. While many have argued over the years there is little substantial policy difference between the two parties, there has been significant differences in approach, tone, and outlook all shaped in the crucible of being opposing sides of a post-independence civil war.
This shaped Irish politics for a generation, and it was somewhat remarkable to see the two sides enter government together.
But needs must; both parties wanted to go into government, and neither wanted Sinn Féin in government.
The big conundrum, however, was how to square the circle of having two parties who both wanted and believed they should be leading the government. Well, simple really: they agreed to share it. Michael Martin, Fianna Fáil leader, became Taoiseach in 2020 with Leo Varadkar, his outgoing predecessor, becoming as Tánaiste (deputy prime minister). They then agreed that they would swap roles in December 2022 with Varadkar becoming Taoiseach.
At the outset many thought this wouldn’t last and indeed the early days of the new administration, set against the backdrop the ongoing pandemic, the Government got off to a shaky start – not one, but two agriculture ministers had to be replaced in the first five weeks.
But despite this the coalition has been relatively stable and ministers from all parties have worked together relatively harmoniously. The Government stood together to deliver one of the biggest giveaway budgets in decades, aimed at mitigating the worst of the cost-of-living crisis.
But the months ahead brings challenges for every government across Europe and Ireland is no different. The cost of living and energy crises have seen costs spiral and continue to rise over the coming months.
A giveaway budget in September was pretty well received. But with the budget out of the way all eyes start to turn to the change in government in December.
This is unprecedented time in Irish politics – while there have been changes in government mid-term over the years, this is the first time it is planned, and that the outgoing Taoiseach will serve in the new administration.
Quite what impact this will have will be anyone’s guess. A change in Taoiseach will necessitate a change in ministries, with new ministers coming in to refresh the Government ahead of a planned election in 2025. Voters will obviously be expecting ministers not to take their eye of the ball over the coming winter; success in dealing with this crisis will be particularly important when it comes to re-election time.
The Government needed to deliver a good budget; poll ratings have slumped as voters have felt the squeeze of the cost-of-living crisis. An Irish Times poll in July gave the Government parties a combined support of just 41 per cent of voters – a year ago their combined support was 53 per cent. While we are still only in the middle of the administration, the economic outlook is not favourable.
And where does this leave Sinn Féin? In 2020’s election, Sinn Féin have enjoyed a remarkable political success, topping the poll. The failure to capitalise on this has not unduly hurt them – and they are unlikely to make the same mistake twice.
In July the same Irish Times poll showed their support at 36 per cent, making them the most popular party, with their leader Mary Lou McDonald being the most popular politician in the country. Even better, from her perspective, just 11 per cent are “wary of change”. This offers fertile ground for the largest party in the Dáil ahead of the next election.
Sinn Féin are a remarkably disciplined party and have been ruthlessly focussed on key issues facing the electorate, housing, cost of living and health. A weak economy and failure to tackle the housing crisis could leave the government parties exposed.
However, Sinn Féin are likely to face heightened scrutiny ahead of any election, Moreover, the vagaries of the Irish electoral system – multi seat constituencies with a single transferable vote – means they are very unlikely to achieve an overall majority, and will be reliant on a range of possible coalition partners.
How they navigate the months ahead, and how their rivals handle the change of government, will be fascinating as we pass the halfway point of the lifetime of this government, and could well decide whether Sinn Féin comes into power in Dublin.