Ireland’s hard-fought novelty government


Picture of John O’Brennan
John O’Brennan

John O’Brennan is Director of European Studies at Maynooth University

Ireland finally has a new government. More than 70 days after the general election produced an inconclusive result and the most fragmented Daíl in decades, Enda Kenny secured the votes necessary to scrape over the line.

The new administration will be a novelty for Ireland. Kenny’s Fine Gael party won only 50 seats, well down on the 76 it won in 2011. The government will be supported from opposition by Fianna Faíl and a number of independents. The rapprochement between Fine Gael and Fianna Faíl – historically the two dominant parties – hasn’t come easy. The prospect of a ‘grand coalition’ between the two, common in many European jurisdictions, fell away as both feared losing ground on their flanks to Sinn Fein, which won 23 seats, and others. Instead, Fianna Faíl will vote with the government on ‘Confidence and Supply’ issues for a minimum of three budgets.

Part of the price conceded by Kenny was a series of changes in the way the Irish Parliament does business. The Oireachtas is one of the weakest parliaments in Europe, and has struggled to assert itself in recent years under the shadow of protracted austerity. Now, however, Oireachtas committees are to be given significantly more powers and the opposition will also be able to table legislative bills of its own. Thus, there’s widespread expectation that the entrenched domination of parliament by the government will come to an end.

Arguably, the biggest public policy failure of Kenny’s first term was the decision to set up Irish Water, a new utility company mired in controversy from an early stage. Systemic mismanagement combined with public resentment at paying for water produced a large-scale and sustained protest, forcing the government to back track considerably on earlier plans to privatise water. The new government has decided to establish a commission of inquiry to examine how investment in water infrastructure should be funded, and will pass legislation to allow for the suspension of water charges. But Kenny’s perilous parliamentary position means he will have to tread carefully.

The second major issue is housing; Ireland’s chronic shortage has fuelled a significant rise in homelessness as well as a relentless rise of rents. The new government has promised to intervene decisively. The new minister for housing, Simon Coveney, is a big-hitter within Fine Gael, and is tasked with producing a strategy to address the deep structural problems within the sector. The previous administration delivered just 75 public homes last year, making the scale of the challenge before the government stark.

Ireland’s novel arrangement is planned for review in 2018, but might prove short-lived. The adversarial nature of the Irish party system – inherited from Westminster – means that although this kind of cooperation is taken for granted in much of the EU, it’s entirely new in Ireland. All parties are now on a steep learning curve, and it remains to be seen whether traditional impulses for aggressive party-political positioning can be moderated sufficiently to facilitate substantive policy development.

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