Sunday, June 21, 2020

Jigsaw Puzzle

“Nation Gives It a Week Before Fianna Fáil & Fine Gael at Each Other’s Throats”
  —Headline on the satirical Irish newspaper website Waterford Whispers News, June 17
Surely, you might be thinking, Ireland must have a government by now. Wasn’t the election way back in February? The current situation here is a good example of the limits of parliamentary government in a politically divided society.

Three of the four largest parties (in terms of seats won) have indeed negotiated a coalition agreement. This is historic for a couple of reasons. For one, it marks the first time that the dominant traditional parties (Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael) have agreed to formally govern together. In Irish terms, this is comparable to the Democratic and Republican parties in the U.S. forming a coalition in, say, the early 1960s (i.e. when the two parties were more heterogenous than they are today) in response to a fast-rising third party. Remember, these Irish parties are remnants of factions that fought a bloody civil war a mere century ago. Some party old-timers are reacting like hell has frozen over.

The other historic thing about it is that the third partner is the Green Party. Yes, the Greens have been in government before, but they were not in a position to seriously affect government policy the way they are now. This time they are playing hardball. They know there will not be a stable government without them, and they have pressed that advantage for all it’s worth. In addition to addressing various social issues, increasing funding for cycling and public transportation infrastructure and raising the carbon tax, it commits the government to cutting the nation’s carbon emissions 7 percent per year.

That last one will prove interesting. Lightly industrialized compared to other European countries, the bulk of Ireland’s emissions (38 percent) come from homes and cars. Another big chunk (33 percent) comes from agriculture, mostly methane from livestock. (Yes, cow farts.) To reduce emissions by that target is going to involve some pretty major changes to both modern and traditional ways of life here. The already-existing urban/rural divide could well become fraught.

Leaders of the two big parties presumably can deliver their members’ support, but the Greens are divided, and the entire membership must vote on the agreement. A lot of the most idealistic members think the deal does not go nearly far enough. Some notable party members have publicly come out against it.

If the deal falls apart, then what? In that case, a new election looks unavoidable. How is that likely to turn out?

Sinn Féin, which was locked out of coalition talks, won the most seats in the February election and were on a definite upswing in the weeks after. Will that bear out in a new poll, thereby putting Ireland on a clearly leftward path? Or will Fine Gael (on the wane leading up to the last election) bounce back because of its caretaker government role in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic?

Even if the coalition works out, things will not be easy. As Independent TD John Halligan put it, “Fianna Fáil traditionally can’t stand Fine Gael. Fine Gael traditionally can’t stand Fianna Fáil and both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael can’t stand the Greens so you’re going to have some mismatch of a government put together.”

If it does fall apart, the big loser will be Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, who stands to be the next taoiseach (prime minister) in a rotating arrangement with Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar. He has long aspired to be the first taoiseach from Cork since Jack Lynch left office in 1979.

As a headline in The Irish Times had it over the weekend, “Micheál Martin, the ‘next taoiseach’ since 1998.”