The Latest Brexit Crisis May Save Ireland’s Shaky Coalition Government
Brexit may be fatal for Dublin in the long term. But for now, it’s a boon to the country’s historic—and fragile—coalition.
Ministerial resignations, internal party squabbles, a global pandemic, and a major national scandal—no government would choose to face these obstacles at the beginning of its first term in office. Yet this summer, that was the unfortunate fate of Ireland’s new coalition administration—the first ever to bring the rival parties of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael together, along with the Green Party. For a time, it seemed as though one of the most remarkable and unconventional political alliances in Irish history would also be one of its most short-lived. “They had a very rocky start, to say the least,” said Mary C. Murphy, a senior lecturer in government and politics at University College Cork. “It’s all been quite unprecedented.”
Now, however, the return of an external threat—Brexit—may save the alliance from an untimely end. On Sept. 9, the British government abruptly sent Brexit talks into crisis by introducing new legislation that seeks to overturn key provisions of Britain’s withdrawal agreement with Brussels, including a pledge to establish what is effectively a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain. By the British government’s own admission, its move breaks international law, and it could jeopardize any Brexit deal.
Since the legislation was announced, Ireland’s taoiseach, or prime minister, Micheal Martin, has been able to shrug off his profile as the leader of a disaster-prone administration and emerge as Ireland’s national champion. In publicly criticizing U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and calling on Britain to drop the legislation, Martin has given the Irish something to rally around. “Brexit enables the taoiseach to be the taoiseach,” the Irish Times political editor Pat Leahy told me. “It gives the government a platform to act like a government.”
Yet damage caused by Brexit may also be fatal for Ireland’s government in the long term, particularly if the United Kingdom finally leaves the European Union without a trade deal. Meanwhile, underlying shifts in Irish politics—foregrounded by responses to recent scandals—continue to haunt the two main governing parties. “We are at the cusp of the old system crumbling,” said David Farrell, the head of University College Dublin’s School of Politics and International Relations. “What happens next is what we are all trying to figure out now.”
Before its potential demise, though, the old system has certainly thrown Ireland a curveball. “Perhaps you’d have to be Irish to understand just how remarkable the coming together of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael to form a coalition government was,” Murphy said. The two parties had fought against each other during the bloody Irish Civil War of 1922 to 1923 and remained bitterly opposed for decades afterward. And while both follow roughly similar center-right policies, this history has always precluded them from merging. Instead, they’ve alternated as the party in power for nearly a century.
It was also extraordinary that they managed to pull the Green Party on board as the third coalition member. The Green Party advocates environmental legislation anathema to many rural Fianna Fail and Fine Gael members, and it nearly didn’t join the coalition due to party infighting.
This unlikely coalition was made possible by a major change in Irish politics: the electoral triumph in February’s general elections of Sinn Fein, the left-wing nationalist party that’s the former political wing of the paramilitary Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA). Outvoting all three current coalition members to emerge as the largest party in Irish politics, Sinn Fein’s unexpected triumph highlighted a growing shift away from the platforms of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. Rather than old Civil War-era loyalties, Sinn Fein gave economic issues center stage—though it didn’t have enough seats to form a majority.
“Sinn Fein played a good hand by highlighting problems in housing and health in particular,” Farrell said. “Ireland’s hangover from the global economic crisis is still going, with people facing long hospital queues and financial losses. Sinn Fein capitalized on all that.”
The election left neither Fianna Fail nor Fine Gael with enough seats to form a government, separately or in coalition, and the two parties were unwilling to join up with Sinn Fein. So after four months of searching for a workable coalition that would have enough seats to form a majority, the Green Party was pulled on board.
After taking office on June 27, the new government rapidly ran into trouble. Within a few weeks, Martin had sacked his first cabinet appointee, Agriculture Minister Barry Cowen, following an embarrassing drunk driving incident. Several leading members of the Green Party then quit over their party’s decision to join the coalition, while others voted against government bills in the parliament.
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 crisis continued, and the government faced the difficult task of bringing the country out of a successful lockdown, which had been managed by former Taoiseach Leo Varadkar of Fine Gael, whose government had remained in office after the election in February, until the new coalition was formed in June. As the lockdown ended and the number of infections rose while confusing new rules and restrictions were instated, Martin’s stewardship of the crisis contrasted poorly with Varadkar’s. Arguments between Martin and the more cautious Varadkar, who is now the deputy taoiseach, also began to attract publicity.
Then came what’s known as Golfgate. On Aug. 19, members of the parliament’s Golf Society had a gathering that broke the government’s own lockdown rules on the number of people allowed to meet. In attendance were senators, party officials from Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, a Supreme Court judge, and Ireland’s representative on the European Commission, Phil Hogan. “It was symbolically immensely damaging,” said Tom McDonnell, the co-director of the Nevin Economic Research Institute in Dublin. “Many people have died, been isolated, endured so much. Yet then they see the people who make the rules attending parties.”
Hogan eventually resigned, along with Dara Calleary, the coalition’s second agriculture minister and Fianna Fail deputy leader, and Jerry Buttimer, the deputy speaker for the parliament’s upper house. “There was a sense that if they allowed those that were there to get away with it, the government wouldn’t last long,” McDonnell said.
A cull of senior politicians on this scale was unprecedented in modern Irish history—but so was the public’s response. “It’s difficult to remember a past parallel where there was such immediate outrage,” said Leahy, the Irish Times editor. “It simply wasn’t possible for those involved to ride it out.” The lower house of the parliament was recalled early from its summer break to debate the scandal, and all across Irish media—social and otherwise—there was an enormous display of anger. In a September opinion poll, only 10 percent of participants said they would give their first preference vote to Fianna Fail, Martin’s party—five points below the previous poll in May.
The severity of the public reaction, and the damage the scandal caused the establishment parties of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, shows just how much Irish politics has been changing in recent years. The strength of the public’s response also reveals that the current coalition is now on a knife edge.
Surviving will not be easy, though, given the major challenges the coalition now faces. “We will be dealing with a double economic shock come winter,” McDonnell said, “when we’ll have the impact of both COVID-19 and Brexit.”
The pandemic has already resulted in nearly 2,000 deaths in Ireland and may cause an 8.5 percent contraction of the Irish economy this year. Brexit, meanwhile, may also lead to major economic disruption, especially if Britain leaves with no deal. Irish beef, for example, may face a 50 percent hike in tariffs when exported to the United Kingdom—the industry’s largest export market.
No deal would also raise major concerns about the Northern Ireland peace process. The foundation stone of this, the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, allowed for an open border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, removing a source of tension between Irish nationalists and British unionists dating back to the 1920s. If the United Kingdom leaves the EU without a deal, the border may become a hard frontier again. This would be anathema to Irish nationalist groups—the more radical of which, such as the New IRA, have declared their intention to attack any new border posts.
A bad Brexit would almost certainly strain the new coalition even further. While the taoiseach has affirmed that there will be “no return of a hard border” between Ireland and Northern Ireland, it’s unclear how that could be ensured. The coalition, for instance, might have to conduct customs checks on vehicles traveling from Northern Ireland into the EU single market of the Republic of Ireland. “There’s no right answer to that one,” said Murphy, the lecturer at University College Cork, “but it will expose political division across the party system.”
It was, after all, the question of what to do about that border that first pitted Fianna Fail and Fine Gael against each other nearly a century ago. “[The government] will have to choose,” Leahy said, “between border checks and the single market, between the North and the EU.” For Fianna Fail in particular, whose ancestors fought a bitter war against the imposition of the border, taking steps to implement border checks may be too much for many old party stalwarts to swallow. Sinn Fein would likely benefit from this, pulling members away from Fianna Fail. And the ones who remain may find themselves wondering if it is not finally time to bury the Civil War hatchet and merge with their old rivals, Fine Gael.