Left to right, climate minister Eamon Ryan, tánaiste Leo Varadkar and taoiseach Micheál Martin at a cabinet meeting. Photograph: Julien Behal/PA
Old enemies from the Irish civil war, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, have formed a historic coalition government in Ireland together with the Green Party. After almost 100 years of civil war politics, both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil voted in favour of entering government together for the first time in the state’s history. The coalition depended on the support of the Greens. It needed a two-thirds majority of members who voted to approve a Programme for Government. It finally voted in favour of going into government by a majority of 76%.
Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin was elected taoiseach (prime minister) on June 27, 2020 – 140 days after the inconclusive general election result. Former taoiseach Leo Varadkar (Fine Gael) becomes tánaiste (deputy head). As a result of the covid-19 pandemic, 160 TD’s gathered in Dublin’s Convention Centre to elect the new taoiseach.
Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald has the distinction of becoming Ireland’s first female leader of the opposition. Her party won a record 37 seats in the election. This was an increase of 14 from the 2016 general election.
In his acceptance speech, Mr Martin said: “To be elected to serve as taoiseach of a free republic is one of the greatest honours which anyone can receive”. In a jibe at Sinn Féin, and their electoral slogan of ‘change’, Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar said: ““That’s what change means to Sinn Féin, but of course when the Green Party does that, it’s a betrayal. What a load of spin and nonsense.” Mary Lou McDonald pledged to become Ireland’s first female taoiseach one day. She said other parties may have conspired to keep Sinn Féin out of government, but they cannot stop change.
Two party domination
Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have dominated the political stage in Ireland since the State’s foundation in 1922. Fine Gael’s parent party, Cumann na nGaedheal, governed the State for the first ten years of independence. Since 1932, one or the other party has been in government. Both parties have been bitter rivals since, locally and nationally. This rivalry intensified due to the fact that they were represented in every constituency in the country.
In the twenty-first century, however, people have begun to question this rivalry. Even though there is still deep loyalty to either party in many Irish homes, there is a feeling that there is little separating the parties. Both are seeking to occupy the middle ground. The February 2020 general results conveyed these feelings.
Sinn Féin almost doubled its percentage of first preference votes from 2016 with 24.5% in the election. Many of these votes came from people’s concerns over homelessness, high rent charges and strained public services. The party in government, Fine Gael, slipped to 20.9% while the main opposition party, Fianna Fáil’s vote fell to 22.2%. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil could only manage to get approximately 43% between them. This was their lowest combined percentage of the vote ever. The other votes they both needed to form a government came from the Greens on 7.1%.
Sinn Féin’s meteoric rise in this general election was a vote for radical change. With this new coalition government, however, it seems that centre-right politics will be the order of the day for at least the next few years. Young people overwhelmingly voted against the old civil war enemies, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Only with the assistance of the Greens could they set a Programme for Government. Voters wanted change. Now with Sinn Féin as the official opposition party in the Republic of Ireland, the prospect of the first female taoiseach may seem a little closer.