Foreign Policy

The current Brexit disaster might save Eire's shaky coalition authorities

Resignation of ministers, internal party disputes, a global pandemic and a major national scandal – no government would choose to face these obstacles early in its first term. That summer, however, it was the unfortunate fate of the new Irish coalition administration – the first to bring rival parties Fianna Fail and Fine Gael together with the Green Party. For a while it seemed that one of the most remarkable and unconventional political alliances in Irish history would also be one of the most short-lived. "They got off to a very rocky start, to say the least," said Mary C. Murphy, a senior lecturer in government and politics at University College Cork. "It was all unprecedented."

Now, however, the return of an external threat – Brexit – can save the alliance from prematurely ending. On September 9, the UK government abruptly sent the Brexit talks into crisis by introducing new laws to repeal key provisions of the UK's withdrawal agreement with Brussels, including a commitment to create a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK . According to the British government, their move violates international law and could jeopardize any Brexit deal.

Since the announcement of the legislation, Ireland's Taoiseach or Prime Minister Micheal Martin has shaken his profile as the leader of a disaster stricken government and emerged as Ireland's national champion. By publicly criticizing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and telling Britain to drop the legislation, Martin gave the Irish something to rally. "Brexit enables the Taoiseach to be the Taoiseach," Irish Times political editor Pat Leahy told me. "It gives the government a platform to act like a government."

However, the damage caused by Brexit can also be fatal to the Irish government in the long run, especially if the UK leaves the European Union for good without a trade deal. Meanwhile, the underlying changes in Irish politics – brought to the fore by responses to recent scandals – continue to haunt the two main ruling parties. "We are on the verge of the collapse of the old system," said David Farrell, director of the School of Politics and International Relations at University College Dublin. "What happens next, we're all trying to find out now."

Before its possible demise, the old system certainly gave Ireland a curveball. "Perhaps you'd have to be Irish to understand how remarkable it was when Fianna Fail and Fine Gael came together to form a coalition government," Murphy said. The two parties had fought each other during the bloody Irish Civil War from 1922 to 1923 and were bitterly against it for decades thereafter. And while both of them share roughly similar center-right lines, that story has always kept them from banding together. Instead, they have been rotating as a party in power for almost a century.

It was also extraordinary that they managed to get the Greens on board as the third coalition member. The Greens are in favor of environmental legislation, which is anathema to many Fianna Fail and Fine Gael members in the countryside, and have almost never joined the coalition due to party fighting.

This unlikely coalition was made possible by a major change in Irish politics: the victory in the general election in February of Sinn Fein, the left-wing nationalist party that is the former political wing of the paramilitary Irish Republican Army (IRA). Sinn Fein's unexpected triumph, which marked all three current coalition members as the largest party in Irish politics, showed a growing departure from the platforms of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. Instead of the old civil war-era loyalty, Sinn Fein focused on economic issues – even though there weren't enough seats to form a majority.

"Sinn Fein has played a good hand, particularly highlighting housing and health issues," Farrell said. "Ireland's hangover from the global economic crisis continues and people face long hospital lines and financial losses. Sinn Fein took advantage of all of this."

The election left neither Fianna Fail nor Fine Gael enough seats to form any government, separate or in coalition, and the two parties were unwilling to join Sinn Fein. After four months of looking for a functioning coalition with enough seats to form a majority, the Green Party was pulled on board.

After taking office on June 27, the new government quickly ran into trouble. Within weeks, Martin had fired his first cabinet officer, Agriculture Secretary Barry Cowen, after an embarrassing incident involving a drunk driver. Several leading members of the Greens then announced their party's decision to join the coalition, while others in parliament voted against government laws.

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 crisis continued and the government faced the difficult task of getting the country out of a successful lockdown administered by former Taoiseach Leo Varadkar of Fine Gael, whose government was following the February elections remained in office until the new coalition was formed in June. As the lockdown ended and infections increased while confusing new rules and restrictions were put in place, Martin's handling of the crisis contrasted poorly with Varadkar's. The skirmishes between Martin and the more cautious Varadkar, who is now the deputy Taoiseach, also drew the public.

Then came the so-called golf gate. On August 19, members of the Golf Society of Parliament had a meeting in violation of government 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 to the European Commission, Phil Hogan. "It was symbolically immensely harmful," said Tom McDonnell, co-director of the Nevin Economic Research Institute in Dublin. “Many people have died, isolated, endured so much. But then you see the people who set the rules for parties. "

Hogan eventually resigned along with Dara Calleary, the coalition's second agriculture minister and vice chairman of Fianna Fail, and Jerry Buttimer, deputy speaker of the upper house of parliament. "There was a feeling that if the government allowed those who were there to get away with it, it wouldn't last long," said McDonnell.

A cull of senior politicians on this scale was unprecedented in modern Irish history – but so was the public reaction. "It's hard to remember a past parallel where there was such immediate outrage," said Leahy, the editor of the Irish Times. "It just wasn't possible for those involved to pull it out." The House of Commons was called back early from its summer recess to debate the scandal and there was tremendous anger across all of the Irish media, social and otherwise. In an opinion poll in September, only 10 percent of respondents said they would give Fianna Fail, Martin's party, their first preferential vote – five points below the previous poll in May.

The severity of the public reaction and the damage the scandal has inflicted on the establishment parties of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael show how much Irish politics has changed in recent years. The strength of the public's response also shows that the current coalition is now up to date.

However, given the major challenges the coalition now faces, survival will not be easy. "We will face a double economic shock in the coming winter," said McDonnell, "when we have the effects of COVID-19 and Brexit."

The pandemic has already resulted in nearly 2,000 deaths in Ireland and could cause the Irish economy to decline 8.5 percent this year. Brexit, meanwhile, can also lead to significant economic disruption, especially if Britain leaves without an agreement. For example, Irish beef can be subject to a 50 percent tariff increase when exported to the UK, the industry's largest export market.

No agreement would raise major concerns about the peace process in Northern Ireland either. The cornerstone for this, the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, allowed for an open border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, removing a source of tension between Irish nationalists and British trade unionists from the 1920s. If the UK leaves the EU without a deal, the border can become a hard border again. This would be anathema to Irish nationalist groups, of which more radical groups like the New IRA have declared their intention to attack new border posts.

A bad Brexit would almost certainly put even more strain on the new coalition. While the Taoiseach has confirmed that there will be "no return of a hard border" between Ireland and Northern Ireland, it is unclear how this could be ensured. For example, the coalition could have to carry out customs controls on vehicles entering the Republic of Ireland's EU internal market from Northern Ireland. "There is no right answer to that," said Murphy, the lecturer at University College Cork, "but it will expose the political rift across the party system."

The question, after all, of what to do about this limit was that Fianna Fail and Fine Gael first pitted against each other almost a century ago. "(The government) has to choose between border controls and the single market between the north and the EU," Leahy said. For Fianna Fail, in particular, whose ancestors waged a bitter war against the imposition of the border, steps to enforce border controls may be too much for many old party stalwarts to swallow. Sinn Fein would likely take advantage of this and pull the members off Fianna Fail. And those who are left may wonder if it is not finally time to bury the hatchet and team up with their old rival, Fine Gael.

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