In recent days, members of the Irish Green Party voted overwhelmingly to enter a coalition with the two traditionally dominant centre-right parties. Coming less than a decade after the Greens were decimated for their last stint as a junior partner in government – propping up Fianna Fáil and implementing a vicious austerity programme from 2007-2011 – this move cements the Greens firmly as a party of neoliberalism.
Observers had speculated that due to a surge in younger and more radical members entering the Greens in the past two years, the party would find it difficult to meet its constitutional threshold to enter government. This required at least two-thirds of the membership to vote in favour of the Programme of Government agreed with the leaders of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Several high-profile party members including some of its elected representatives called for a no vote. But in the end, 76 per cent of the membership voted in favour, easily passing the threshold.
Members of the Dáil (the Irish parliament) sat on Saturday to elect the Taoiseach (prime minister), Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. Part of the deal is for a rotating taoiseach, whereby the Fianna Fáil leader will take the position for the first half of the five-year term, followed by the Fine Gael leader. The Greens will get three ministries.
The Greens’ decision puts Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael back into government four months after a historic general election in February, in which the two mainstays of politics since the foundation of the Irish state a century ago failed to muster a combined 50 per cent of the vote. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – both parties of the centre-right that have alternately led every government for a century – polled 22.2 per cent and 20.9 per cent respectively.
The election marked a major turning point in Irish politics as, for the first time in the state’s history, Sinn Féin topped the poll, winning 24.5 per cent of the first-preference vote (under the single-transferable vote system). The Green Party took seven per cent of the popular vote, with smaller left parties Labour, Social Democrats and Solidarity/People Before Profit taking a combined share of the vote of around 10 per cent.
To form government, a majority of at least 80 seats is required in the 160-seat lower house. After the February election, Fianna Fáil emerged with 38 seats; Sinn Féin with 37; Fine Gael with 35 and the Greens with 12. A coalition of the left-of-centre parties was closer than ever before but only amounted to 69 seats outright and would have needed support from at least half of the 22 Independents, many of whom ran on a right-wing platform.
The surge to Sinn Féin surprised everyone, coming as it did on the heels of a disappointing performance in the local and European elections in 2019 in which the party lost seats. Sinn Féin ran only 42 candidates in February but topped the poll in 30 constituencies, indicating it could have won many more seats, and with its distributed surpluses helping get other left candidates across the line. This was partially due to an effective ‘vote left, transfer left’ campaign that benefited all parties to the left of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, including the Greens.
The leftward surge of the electorate was fuelled, in particular, by anger at the long-running housing and homelessness crisis; a shambolic, two-tier healthcare system; and a plan by the incumbent Fine Gael government to increase the retirement age from 66 to 67 years old.
The Programme for Government contains virtually nothing when it comes to the crises in housing costs, social housing and homelessness. In her speech to the Green Party convention, finance spokesperson Neasa Hourigan said: “I’m not voting against this because I don’t think it will solve the housing crisis. I’m voting against it because I think this document will make homelessness worse. There is no rent control. There’s no ban on evictions due to sale, but there is an overarching commitment to private home ownership without locking in how truly affordable housing could be achieved.”
The pandemic seems to have barely registered in the healthcare section of the Programme for Government, with heath reforms (Sláintecare) aimed at improving access, affordability and quality being postponed until 2022. There is nothing in the programme either for workers’ rights, with no commitment to enshrine statutory collective bargaining rights for all workers, nor enforceable access to workplaces for unions.
The existing carbon tax will increase from its current cost of €26 per tonne of carbon dioxide to €100 per tonne by 2030 – but the Greens’ proposed fee-and-dividend model that would ensure redistribution of the revenue to benefit lower-income households has been scrapped in favour of a regressive model.
The one area of the Programme for Government that outlines a progressive policy that actually includes firm commitments and defined funding is on the expansion of walking and cycling lanes in the government’s transport budget and programme. This is a necessary step forward in policy but, as the only concrete win in the agreement, will reinforce the ‘Fine Gael on bikes’ description of the Greens among the rest of the left.
A group of young and rural Green candidates wrote an open letter to the party last week, urging a no vote, saying: “We know that the climate crisis requires urgent action. However, the need for urgency makes it all the more important to consider inequality. To be fast, climate action must be fair. Policies that hit the most vulnerable in society the hardest and exacerbate inequality are neither just nor effective.”
Even when it comes to the headline Green achievement – the seven per cent year-on-year emissions reductions by 2030 – the incoming government is highly unlikely to succeed. The programme commits to an average of seven per cent by 2030 and notes the cuts will take place in the second half of the decade, after the end of this government term.
More importantly, it fails to outline exactly where these cuts will come from. It leaves the most polluting sections of the Irish economy entirely intact, with minimal reforms, if any – the cattle farming, aviation and road haulage sectors are practically untouched. Despite the media spin, the agreement does not include a firm commitment to ban the importation of fracked gas.
The most important aspect of the agreement is its fiscal policy. The programme commits to deepening Ireland’s tax haven economic model, refuses to impose higher taxes on the wealthy, and commits to making year-on-year deficit reductions. The only new revenue will come from regressive consumption taxes including the carbon tax, and taxes on plastic and sugar.
Against the backdrop of the Covid recession, this blanket commitment to reducing the deficit each year reflects the failed Fine Gael and European Union austerity ideology that has caused so much pain in Ireland since the 2008 crash. This will indeed be “the most fiscally conservative government in a generation”.
Lessons from Recent History
The February poll cemented the long-running decline of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. From the first Fianna Fáil government was formed in 1932 until it was crushed in 2011, the party was in government for 61 of those 79 years. Fine Gael-led governments, usually with Labour as a junior partner, came to power when voters tired of Fianna Fáil.
This system of sharing power by two centre-right parties that emerged out of Ireland’s Civil War in 1922-23 has distorted the development of Irish politics ever since, preventing a left-right ideological divide from becoming the basic faultline of the political system as it was in most Western industrial countries throughout the 20th century. The weakness of the Irish labour movement (in what was until recently a largely agrarian economy), partition and its effects, and the preferential voting system have also contributed to this phenomenon.
After years of corrupt mismanagement of the Celtic Tiger property boom, Fianna Fáil formed a coalition government with Greens following the 2007 general election, which was propped up by a handful of others including two representatives of the right-wing Progressive Democrats. It was the first time the Greens were in government since the party was created in the 1980s. The Greens had six seats and two ministries, environment and communications. The government oversaw a €64 billion bailout of the Irish banks by the EU, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund in 2010, and enthusiastically implemented the vicious austerity programme demanded by the Troika.
In the general election that followed in 2011, both Fianna Fáil and the Greens were crushed. Fianna Fáil went from 77 seats to 20, while the Greens lost all their seats and polled just 1.8 per cent of the vote. The winners were Fine Gael and Labour, who formed a coalition government with Labour as a junior partner. This government maintained most of the cuts to social protection that the previous government had implemented but deepened the state’s strategy of courting US multinational corporations from the technology and pharmaceutical sectors to avail of the tax avoidance techniques facilitated by the Irish state, allowing it to claim a quick economic ‘recovery’ – a recovery that never seemed to make it down to the household level.
Yet while both Fianna Fáil and the Greens suffered dramatic losses after their government term, in the 2016 general election Labour was wiped out while the Fine Gael vote held up a little better. Fine Gael dropped from 76 seats to 49, while Labour dropped from 37 seats to 7. From 2016 until the February election, Fine Gael led a minority government with Fianna Fáil supporting it through a confidence and supply agreement.
Fine Gael has clearly become the party of choice for international capital and the EU – as reliable managers of the Irish economy as an offshore financial centre, without the same baggage of incompetence, corruption and social conservatism that Fianna Fáil carried.
This rough outline of electoral politics in the Irish state in the 21st century reveals several simple lessons. The first is that people are steadily turning away from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Both parties are in a steady and consistent decline.
The second is that when left-of-centre parties enter a coalition government with either of these right-wing parties, they bear the brunt of voters’ anger at the ensuing policies implemented by the coalition governments. They hold ownership of all of the policies implemented by that government, not only those implemented by their ministers.
The third is that Irish parliamentary politics is gradually but definitely moving towards a ‘normal’ left-right divide, with the left vote increasing and the two old parties – with no practical ideological or policy differences – are finally being forced together, with one unable to rule without the other.
In this sense, the new coalition government may be clarifying and healthy for the development of this right-left politics in Ireland. But it is bad for the people forced to live under another neoliberal government for the next five years. And it is bad for the climate movement in Ireland, which, through the Green participation in this government, will undoubtedly be associated with painful austerity.