The most extraordinary coalition formed in Ireland was the first one, in 1948. It involved Fine Gael and a then-new party headed by Sean McBride, Clann na Poblachta. The Clann was a lively mixture of liberals, left-wingers and Republicans with a deep immersion in the IRA. The surprise with the Clann was that its youthful enthusiasm and vigorous campaigns against partition very nearly toppled De Valera from his then hegemony over Irish politics.
McBride himself was a former IRA Chief of Staff who subsequently cut out a career for himself as an international eminence becoming a Nobel Prize laureate and founding member of Amnesty International – the campaigning global Human Rights body. Because of lingering republican bitterness against General Richard Mulcahy’s role in the civil war, Mulcahy, the Fine Gael leader, stood aside to facilitate a coalition with the Clann and its tooth and claw republican militants. John A Costello became Taoiseach in the coalition instead.
The point of all of this is to illustrate that, from the very outset, coalition formation in Ireland has been a pragmatic business where big parties and small ones dispense with ideological or philosophical differences in order to provide an alternative government and run the country. Down the years few, if any, Fine Gael or Labour leaders worried too much about the differences of left and right when it came to forming a government designed to extract Fianna Fáil from prolonged periods in power.
In 1989 Charles Haughey led Fianna Fáil for the first time ever into a coalition arrangement with the Progressive Democrats, stating cheerily: “Sure, it was only me that could have done it”. His party colleagues resisted it furiously believing non-participation in coalition an absolute core value for the party up to that point. The bitterness of doing this coalition was magnified by the presence of Des O’Malley and his new party – composed of individuals who had fought Haughey, then split from him to create their own party. For Haughey it was just another deal but for the Progressive Democrats, who claimed to be policy-focused, it was about taxation and other precious policy items, including a public Tribunal into the goings on in the Beef Industry.
Haughey worked hard to save his own skin and persuade his ministerial colleagues of the merits of going into coalition. Apparently at one stage in the discussions around the cabinet table he held out his arms sideways demanding in relation to the opposition: “D0 you want to give them all of this?”.
Shortly afterwards the new Taoiseach Albert Reynolds formed a coalition with the Labour Party which followed an election in 1992 which featured advertisements generated by Fianna Fáil scaremongering about a left-wing takeover of the country by Labour. This was no small tactic and involved giant billboards and full-page newspaper adverts in a bid to frighten voters in a move that was redolent of the ‘red scare’ tactics of the 1950s and 1960s.
During the actual campaign my father, the late Brian Lenihan Senior. When all about him were these banner advertisements called for an alignment with Labour rather than the PDs. His rationale was that Labour were more compatible with FF than what he viewed as the “Thatcherite ” Progressive Democrats. He was dismissed by the party bosses during the campaign only to find himself instrumental, behind the scenes, after the election in putting the coalition deal with Labour together. Albert Reynolds, a businessman, proved to be very pragmatic when faced with the post-election numbers and getting back into power.
My father had key relationships and friendships within the Labour Party and within the labour movement generally. These relationships and ability to communicate became vital to the formation of this government. When people set out to cross party divides there is a need for credible and dependable intermediaries who can give assurances on policy and how the share out of ministries will play out when the negotiations get real. This was my own experience when I set out, at the request of Bertie Ahern, to put in motion the process of having a coalition with the Green Party in 2007.
In fact the groundwork had begun in the immediate aftermath of the 2002 election. Ahern was already entertaining doubts about the future sustainability of the PD coalition because of problems with both policy and numbers. I knew a number of the key figures in the Green Party, including Trevor Sargent and had been in university with both Eamon Ryan and John Gormley. Part of the reason for having a coalition with the Greens was a concern within the party about the right-of-centre nature of the PD coalition, as well as a fear that the party was already becoming too visibly identified with the building industry and big capital. It was also made easier by the overarching atmosphere of mainstreaming environmental or green issues.
When the post-election numbers showed a Green coalition was necessary Bertie pressed the buttons and appointed a skilled and experienced team of negotiators so that his own ministers were locked into the items agreed with the Greens. The government itself worked well together though it has to be said it was much more difficult for the Greens to get the coalition deal past their activists than it was for Bertie to get it past his parliamentary party. Rural TDs were the most resistant regarding Green policies on farming incentives as tantamount to treason. In the event they overcame their difficulties.
As with the previous Labour Coalition, outside of the main negotiations, a series of reliable and discreet intermediaries were on hand to smooth out any issues that arose in the talks. Ahern himself was a very accomplished negotiator.
General Election 2016 has been dominated by speculation of a grand coalition between the once very dominant big parties of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The fact that both parties combined now count for slightly less than 50% of the popular vote has hastened a frenzy of speculation about such a coalition coming about. There is strong institutionalised resistance to the concept in both parties. These have nothing to do with ideology nor indeed the civil war of 1922/23. In fact they lie in the social basis from which each part draws its support. Resistance is also to do with the status and rivalry of two sets of activists. The electorate and the commentariat remain largely blind to this reality.
The idea of such a coalition was much laundered before the 2016 election. The high-profile attendance of my late brother at the Michael Collins commemoration in Cork gave a certain validity to the notion itself. There is a historical sense that it is time to bury the hatchet. For a coalition of this kind to come about it will require huge sacrifices, not from Fianna Fáil, but from Fine Gael.
The concessions will have to come in the areas of ministerial representation, the policy content of the government itself and nally in the hugely symbolic issue of who in fact is to become Taoiseach. Fianna Fáil people would argue that, in the context of Fine Gael losing the election, it has a right to claim significant concessions and the party may even push this to the point of insisting that Micheál Martin be nominated as Taoiseach for such a grand coalition. This move is based on the notion that the voters have definitively voted for the removal of Fine Gael from office and that anything less than visible change in the policy and personality make up of the government will leave such a grand coalition doomed from the outset. If it is not to be a Fianna Fáil Taoiseach then some consideration may be given to the idea of a rotation of the role of Taoiseach between the two parties.
At the very least Fine Gael will be forced to eat humble pie and also become the vehicle to implement the core elements of the Fianna Fáil manifesto while in government. The most visible of these commitments will be the abolition of Irish Water and the tax policies of concentrating future reduction on the middle to lower paid. Time will tell if either party is prepared to make these leaps of faith.
Fine Gael put so much stress on stability and the continuation of economic recovery in the election campaign that it is now virtually impossible for them to resist such demands made by Fianna Fáil. Both parties fear the prospect of leaving Sinn Féin as the main leader of the opposition. They may, however, decide that it is a risk worth taking the predicted scal revenues that are about to become available given the recovery that has already taken place. The fact that Sinn Féin will have to endure fragmented, but highly active, left-wing competitors in the Dáil may also make it easier for the two big parties to do a deal.
The Labour Party, Sinn Féin, the Social Democrats, the Greens and the anti-austerity alliance all share the new, left wing, space in the Dáil. None of these parties have a great deal in common. Even on the controversial issue of water charges there have been bitter divisions. It will be difficult, even for a determined party like Sinn Féin, to bring about left-wing unity.
The former PD Leader Mary Harney had wide-ranging experience of negotiating coalition agreements over a long career in government. She famously stated once ” the worst day in government is better than the best day in opposition”. Few politicians relish or write very much in their memoirs of the long spells they spent in opposition.