Friday, March 13, 2020

Government Self-isolation

“Ireland Officially Changes Covid-19 Status From ‘Be Grand’ To ‘Alright, Fair Enough’ ”
—Headline on the satirical Irish web site Waterford Whispers News on Thursday
Remember a while back when I gloated that countries that have the parliamentary system, like Ireland, get their campaigns and elections over with quickly and do not drag their citizens through endless months and years of electioneering? Well, the flip side of that is that, under the parliamentary system, once the election is over, sometimes you can be waiting weeks or months for a government to be formed.

An extreme example of this was the Belgian election of 2010. Prime Minister Yves Leterme resigned on April 26 of that year, and the election was held on June 13. It took until November of 2011 for a government to be formed. Leterme wound up serving as a caretaker head of government for 589 days.

The root causes of the deadlock lay in the country’s division between the Flemish and the Walloons, Belgian peoples who not only have different cultures but who literally speak different languages. Things got so bad that, at one point, separatist Walloons had talks with the president of France and the French Socialist Party about becoming a new region of France.

So how are things going in Ireland, which had its election on February 8? More than a month later there is still no government. Is there any danger Dublin will break Brussels’ record for government-forming negotiations? Not likely, given the seriousness of Brexit and, more immediately, the coronavirus emergency. The latter particularly seems to leave no room for more of the game-playing that the various parties were happy to indulge in at first. Anything that cancels everything from St. Patrick’s Day to GAA matches to Mass is pretty serious business.

Here’s my own assessment of the government situation, for what it’s worth (probably not much). Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and Fine Gael each won roughly a quarter of the seats in Dáil Éireann. The remainder went to various smaller parties and independents. How do you fit that jigsaw puzzle together? Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are perfectly compatible ideologically but hate the idea of a “grand coalition” between them for historical reasons and the likely real perception that such a deal would only shrink their support further, helping the left in the long run. Fine Gael in particular appears anxious to go into opposition, calculating that is in its best long-term interest.

The Green Party with its 12 seats is in the kingmaker seat, as they are the only easy completing piece to a combination of any two of the larger parties. The Greens, however, were badly burned the last time they were a junior coalition partner, so they are holding firm on either getting to call the shots or opting for a national unity government. Sinn Féin, which has never been in government in the republic, seems anxious to get in, but the other large parties have varying levels of mistrust.

The national unity idea (a government of all elected TDs) has gained force with the intensifying Covid-19 pressure. However good it may sound in a Kumbaya sort of way, though, it would be awfully unwieldy in practice.

The likely outcome, as least as it appears as of this writing, is a FF/FG/Greens arrangement, but who would lead it? Outgoing Taoiseach Leo Varadkar only seems interested if there is a rotating Taoiseach arrangement. Another idea that has been floated is to make the leader of the smallest coalition partner (the Greens’ Eamon Ryan) the head of government. This might assuage left-leaning voters, who are certain to feel bitterly cheated by a FF/FG government. Those parties are all too aware that the only reasons that Sinn Féin does not have an outright plurality of seats is because 1) FF got a freebie because one of their members happened to be the Ceann Comhairle (lower house speaker) and so retained his seat automatically and 2) Sinn Féin did not put forward more candidates who, it is now clear, would have been elected. To add even more pressure, the first opinion poll after the election showed a huge jump in support for Sinn Féin, meaning that a new election might well turn out even worse for the other two main parties, resulting in a Sinn Féin-led government.

It is worth noting that the concerns about Sinn Féin are not without merit. The party seems to have an awful lot of money on hand and, even taking into account a multi-million-pound bequeathal in a quirky, old, radical Englishman’s will last year, the source of its funding is by no means entirely clear. Furthermore, the highest levels of the party’s decision-making are frustratingly opaque, which does nothing to dispel concerns that the old IRA Army Council, or some variation of it, is still calling the shots.

It is still an open question how the next Irish government will be formed. One hopes it will not take as long as Belgium a decade ago. An interesting question is whether, as in the Belgian case, an extended deadlock will spur some—even more than already—toward thoughts of realigning national borders.