On paper, Theresa May and Leo Varadkar have much in common politically. Ideologically centre-right, both the British prime minister and Irish premier (Taoiseach) head minority governments that rest on precarious confidence and supply agreements. But Varadkar is in a markedly more stable position than his British counterpart, despite the fact that his party, Fine Gael, controls less than one-third of the seats in the Irish parliament, Dáil Éireann.
While the two main political parties in Westminster oscillate between combat and implosion and the executive stumbles from crisis to crisis, Brexit has, improbably, led to a degree of government stability in Ireland. No one would have predicted this durability in the aftermath of the Irish general election of February 2016. An increasingly fragmented party system ensured government formation took more than two months. The resulting confidence and supply agreement with the main opposition party, Fianna Fáil, led by Micheál Martin, rested on an uneasy alliance between two old enemies, propped up by a disparate group of independents.
This confidence and supply arrangement, that many felt would not last its original term of three budgets, was extended in December 2018 for one more year, ensuring there will be no general election before 2020. In the face of a disorderly Brexit, with its associated economic threats and a seemingly unsolvable border conundrum, how has this come to pass?
First and foremost, Brexit is just short of a national crisis for the Irish Republic. The fallout for the economy could be stark and the memories of a hard border and the associated violence are very real to anyone over 35 years old. While not quite the grand coalition of a country at war, the need for stability led Fianna Fáil to agree to continue its support of the current minority government into 2020.
Unlike in the UK, there is a broad consensus that Brexit offers few opportunities for the Republic and the overarching goal is to minimise its – inevitable – costs. Parties of the left and right are united in their rejection of a hard border. Traditional economic and nationalist ideological divisions do not colour the Brexit debate in Ireland. While Irish parties vary in their support for the European project, with Fine Gael traditionally the most pro-European, there is not a single party – or faction within them – that advocates a departure from the EU. Bolstering this position, of the 28 member states’ citizens, Irish people remain among the most positively disposed towards the EU.
But this is not just a tale of selfless cross-party unity in the face of a national crisis – it is also a strategic choice on the part of the two biggest parties. In contrast with the UK, neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil has any hopes of winning an electoral majority, should the government be brought down. Public opinion polls demonstrate remarkable stability in party support, meaning an election called in the coming months would result in much the same division of seats as in 2016. There is also no public appetite for an election at this time of uncertainty and any party bringing down the government fears being punished at the polls.
Brexit red lines
Fianna Fáil is also still trying to win back public trust and support after what was widely seen as their mismanagement of the economy in the run up to the economic crash of 2008. A decade after austerity, the party’s reputation is still tarnished. Its support of Varadkar’s minority government is an opportunity to redeem the party brand and cast off an image as a power-hungry, office-seeking party.
It’s playing a long game. Once a dominant party, Fianna Fáil lost three-quarters of its seats in the 2011 election and is still only a shadow of its former glory. And given the lack of any significant ideological difference between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the former can achieve some of its policy priorities in opposition, while simultaneously avoiding taking the blame for spiralling house and rental prices, homelessness and hospital waiting lists. Although, it’s worth noting that Brexit has, oddly, provided the government some cover from public dissatisfaction with its underwhelming response to these domestic crises.
Coalition governments are the norm in Ireland. Minority coalitions are quite typical, representing almost half of post-war executives. One consequence of this is that the Irish political system has had more time to practice the fine art of consensual governance, which is so alien to the Westminster system. But there is much uncertainty.
The next two months will be a challenge for the incumbent Irish government, especially if pressure to concede a time limit on the central issue of the “Irish backstop” builds. This point has been a red line for the government – any weakening or concession on this point will damage Varadkar and Fine Gael and will strain the confidence and supply arrangement.