Ireland’s last election was a crushing defeat for the conservative political establishment. Sinn Féin came first with 24.5 percent of the vote, overturning an electoral system historically dominated by the center-right outfits Fine Gael (FG) and Fianna Fáil (FF).
These parties, whose dividing lines owe more to rival cronyism than to ideological opposition, had alternated in government throughout much of the twentieth century. In 2016, waning popularity forced them to enter into an unprecedented confidence-and-supply agreement — with FF propping up a minority FG administration — which endured until February this year, when their combined vote share fell to a historic low.
This decline expressed two factors: a decisive rejection of the austerity program imposed after the financial crisis, and a recognition that Ireland’s widely touted “recovery” had left behind key sectors such as housing and health.
In retrospect, Sinn Féin’s surge seems predictable: frustration had been mounting at the government’s unabashed landlordism (kowtowing to property developers and blocking anti-eviction legislation during a severe homelessness crisis), along with its outright refusal to pay public-sector workers a decent wage.
However, Sinn Féin did not run enough candidates to fully capitalize on its electoral growth. The party’s poor showing in the 2019 local elections, along with the perception that the Fine Gael Taoiseach (prime minister) Leo Varadkar had increased his standing through his management of the Brexit impasse, prompted it to run a cautious election campaign. As a result, Sinn Féin fell short of the seats needed to form a governing coalition.
A “National Government” Once Again
This left Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael with a dilemma: they could either close ranks and consolidate the alliance formed in 2016, or call another vote and risk having Sinn Féin storm to victory. Though the first option would preserve the status quo, it would also undermine the most effective strategy for maintaining the hegemony of Ireland’s neoliberal bloc — to share the public outrage over its policies between two parties, rather than concentrating it on one (a postcolonial variant of “divide and rule”).
Nonetheless, the threat of a popular left government was enough to kickstart talks between Varadkar and FF leader Micheál Martin. By March, it seemed they had convinced enough of their TDs (MPs) to back a joint government in which the office of Taoiseach would pass between the leaders on a rotating basis.
The coronavirus outbreak allowed them to spin this last-ditch partnership as a valiant response to the pandemic: not a de facto coalition made de jure, but an exceptional bipartisan arrangement, setting differences aside to serve the greater good.
Varadkar and Martin promptly drew up a “joint framework document,” laying out their plan for government with twenty pages of platitudinous filler: “We must work together to achieve a stronger, more inclusive Ireland — an Ireland that gives meaning to our belief that our best days are still ahead.” Yet alongside the empty verbiage, the document also appropriates the language of the Left: “We know that there is no going back to the old way of doing things,” it states. “Radical actions have been taken to protect as many people as possible [from COVID-19], and new ways of doing things have been found in a time of crisis.”
This is partly an acknowledgment of the public mood. But it is also a pitch to Ireland’s small, nominally progressive parties, whose support will be crucial for FF and FG to reach a majority (together they make up seventy-two seats, yet eighty are required for a workable administration). With Labour signaling it won’t be part of any deal, and the Social Democrats unable to muster the numbers, the kingmaker will be Eamon Ryan’s Green Party.
The Greens have always been a middle-class grouping, geared exclusively toward electoral politics, whose support is largely confined to affluent parts of south Dublin. Having split from the small activist cadre of the Green Alliance in 1986, the party steadily accrued local council seats throughout the early years of its existence, then made its way into Dáil Éireann and the European Parliament during the 1990s.
Its environmentalism favors technocratic fixes (“introduce smart grids,” “retrofit buildings”) over political transformation, as demonstrated by its strikingly ineffectual participation in the FF-led coalition government between 2007 and 2011. David Landy and Oisín McGarrity have documented the party’s succession of U-turns during this period: allowing the US military to land at Shannon Airport, building new motorways on top of historical landmarks, and supporting Shell’s establishment of ecologically destructive gas refineries, to name just a few.
The Greens also helped Fianna Fáil push through the EU-IMF bailout package that ushered in years of fiscal austerity, with Eamon Ryan appearing regularly on broadcast media to defend deep cuts to social welfare and public services. When asked by a BBC journalist whether the bankers who caused the crisis should help to pay for it, Ryan replied that this was “not a realistic solution.”
The Greens were duly punished for this sellout, losing all six of their Dáil seats in the 2011 election. But since then, they have benefited from widespread exasperation with the major parties, positioning themselves as a “sensible” alternative for metropolitans who fret about their carbon footprints. This demographic knows the FF-FG era is over, but it bristles at Sinn Féin’s talk of rent controls and its historic links to the IRA.
That leaves the Social Democrats, Labour, and the Green Party as the remaining soft-left options. Yet only the Greens speak to the faddish bourgeois eco-consciousness instilled by movements like Extinction Rebellion (whose Irish outpost has been particularly active) and the Christian conservationism left over from Ireland’s theocratic past.
Ryan’s party picked up 7 percent of the vote in February’s election, giving it twelve seats in the Dáil. He initially called for a national unity government to tackle coronavirus, but when other players demurred, the Green leader began to set out terms for entering a coalition.
The Greens produced a list of seventeen demands in response to the joint framework document, some of which appear radical — a 7 percent annual reduction in carbon emissions; investment in green energy and transport; an end the country’s inhuman treatment of migrants; a Universal Basic Income trial — while others are typically vacuous: “a national land use plan,” “a new social contract,” and “urban renewal.”
A curious feature of this document was that its most imaginative proposals contradicted official Green policy. Despite demanding “massive development in renewable energy infrastructure,” the party’s 2019 alternative budget proposal allocated only 0.5 percent of public spending to green investment. But such discrepancies can be explained by Ryan’s assertion that his seventeen points do not constitute a “negotiation document” so much as an “aspirational” wish list.
His party’s only “red line” is the reduction in carbon emissions. However, with no detail on how this goal is to be achieved, it is likely to be dropped once the Greens get into power, much like their historic pledges to rein in fossil fuel extraction.
Ryan provided a more realistic impression of his party’s probable role in government with a now infamous Dáil speech on March 19, in which he recommended that the state reopen hardware stores, so that those forced to work from home during the pandemic could purchase the supplies to paint their houses — a measure that Ryan claimed was “important . . . to maintain the mental health of our people.”
He also proposed that “every south-facing windowsill in this country” should be used to “plant seeds . . . so that if there is any supply crisis in two or three months’ time, when this really hits hard, we’ll have our salads ready to go!” Leo Varadkar and his FG colleague Simon Harris could barely conceal their amusement at the thought of negotiating with this political featherweight over the coming weeks.
Dancing to Disaster
No doubt having absorbed these helpful suggestions, FF and FG replied to Ryan’s list on March 28, promising to “tease out” the 7-percent target and consider his transport reforms. Their response stoked existing divisions within the Greens, with the majority of the party’s TDs pushing to begin formal negotiations, while progressive members insist that they should “walk.”
The first group won out on May 3, voting to enter talks that are likely to result in an agreement by next month — although this has done little to appease the party’s prominent youth wing, which issued a statement opposing the decision.
Over the past few weeks, many of Ryan’s own colleagues have expressed their frustration at his single-minded ambition to enter high office. Sources told the Irish Examiner that he is openly leaking internal party discussions to the media, in the hope that this will pressure his subordinates to accept the FF-FG offer. “He doesn’t seem to have been burned at all about his last time in government,” said one insider. “I don’t think he gets what is on the line here.”
Yet it remains possible that this strategy will backfire: Ryan needs two-thirds of the membership to approve a coalition deal, and these aggressive tactics have alienated some vital factions.
Thus does Ryan’s ritual death dance — shedding his avowed principles before leading his party to electoral oblivion — proceed. If his motives seem opaque, a recent column from the Irish Times political editor Pat Leahy is revealing.
Leahy suggests that Green climate policies will not be “seriously entertained” by the coming coalition, predicting that the party will be “disappointed” and its new supporters “disgusted” by the outcome; moreover, the party will likely be “monstered at the next election.” In spite of this prediction, Leahy instructed Ryan’s party to join up anyway, and fully expected that it would do so, because it recognizes the need to “deal with the world as it is” — and because it craves the approval of establishment pundits like Leahy himself.
Ryan’s personal vanity certainly plays a significant part in this. As Green sources told the Examiner:
All of this is about his personal trajectory, he’d jump into Cabinet right this second if he could get a ministry . . . It seems now Eamon wants to be the Tánaiste [Deputy PM], and that’s all the matters to him.
Once an agreement is reached, it will enable Varadkar’s plan to claw back credibility by steering the nation through the coronavirus pandemic. Flanked by the staggeringly inept Boris Johnson, the Taoiseach has adopted the same PR strategy that he used during the Brexit crisis, juxtaposing his sturdy, statesmanlike approach with the chaos of Britain’s remade Tories.
His caretaker government imposed a lockdown weeks before the UK, and has proceeded cautiously ever since, eschewing the reckless fixation with an “exit strategy” shared by British politicians from both parties. The Irish premier has even managed to launder his public image by re-registering as a doctor, winning endless plaudits for serving “on the front line” — even though he has only agreed to do occasional phone consultations and assist with community testing.
What he needs most at this conjuncture is a quasi-national unity government — pointedly excluding Sinn Féin — in which FF and FG act as the grown-up parties, equipped to deal with the economic fallout of the virus, while the Greens play the supporting role of sacrificial lamb.
What’s been lost amid these machinations is a clear-eyed appraisal of the government’s COVID-19 measures. This should have been Sinn Féin’s task, a chance to prove its worth as the “official opposition.” However, it has squandered the opportunity by speculating about the potential for the pandemic to accelerate Irish unification, and decrying British Army involvement in the Northern Irish response, instead of taking FG to task on a number of life-or-death issues.
This is a signal that the social policies underpinning Sinn Féin’s success in February will always come second to its nationalist bugbears. But the pandemic itself has also stunted the party’s momentum.
In the wake of its election victory, SF organized a series of mass rallies that the terrified Varadkar described as a “campaign of intimidation and bullying.” Now, social distancing has compromised the party’s ability to reinvigorate grassroots politics in Ireland, and the absence of its leader — who was forced to take time off to recover from the virus — has left it somewhat adrift, struggling to formulate a coherent response to Varadkar’s charm offensive.
Spin Over Strategy
Having slashed €3.3 billion from the health budget, dispensed with more than two thousand hospital beds, and shed 12 percent of health staff during the recessionary period, the Irish state was entirely unprepared for the current outbreak. Yet instead of following the established protocols to deal with a public health emergency — as outlined in a 2017 document called “Strategic Emergency Management: National Structures and Framework” — the government centralized decision-making around the Taoiseach’s office, stifling transparency and coordination.
As a result, Varadkar’s team failed to communicate with the nursing home sector, where the scale of the crisis was neglected, with disastrous results. On top of this, FG has repeatedly failed to meet testing targets because of its refusal to mobilize Ireland’s vast domestic pharma industry, for fear of offending its chief executives.
The government’s initial welfare scheme — offering to pay those laid off as a result of the virus €203 per week — was so inadequate that it was forced to backtrack in late March. As things stand, FG has done nothing to stop the pandemic spreading through the cramped and unsanitary detention centers where it keeps its migrant population. Nor has it enforced lockdown restrictions on nonessential businesses, which continue to operate without proper social distancing in place.
It has opted to pay private hospitals €115 million per month to use their facilities, much of which will be spent on covering the €200,000 annual salaries of senior managers, rather than expanding capacity or buying personal protective equipment. And, despite this hefty fee, private patients will still be allowed to skip the queue in public hospitals and receive treatment for non-COVID-19 illnesses.
Sinn Féin’s reluctance to highlight these problems has allowed Varadkar to recoup lost support. The latest opinion polling puts FG at 34–35 percent and Sinn Féin at 27–28 percent, marking the success of his rebranding exercise, along with the inevitable tendency of conservative voters to coalesce around one party in response to a left-wing surge.
It is possible that the FF-FG pact will be a fragile one, wrought with infighting and likely to falter at the next election. Yet if the Greens fall in line with their pro-corporate agenda, the center-right parties may — unlike the victims of their public health mismanagement — gain a temporary lease on life.