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WTF is a minority government? And other important questions

There are many options flying around, but what do they all mean?

Updated 14 April

03/02/2016. Fine Gael. Pictured An Taoiseach Enda Fine Gael has the most seats, but not enough. Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

‘TAKE THREE. AAAND (no) action!’

The 32nd Dáil is trying this afternoon for the third time to elect a Taoiseach. The 158 members of the house will fail to do so again.

That’s because the two biggest parties haven’t been able to form a coalition or, so far, convince each other and independents to support a minority arrangement.

Fianna Fáil’s rebuffal of Fine Gael’s advances to form a “partnership government” means that a minority government led by one or the other seems to be the only show in town.

The horse trading over the past few weeks has seen the two parties trying to win the backing of independents, but no firm commitments have yet been made.


Michaél Martin has now tried to force the issue by telling independents that today will be their last opportunity to vote for him as Taoiseach.

If this is indeed the case, then a Fine Gael-led minority government would be the only remaining option that avoids a second election.

But what exactly would such a government mean in practice?

Let’s take look at that option with an eye on some of the other less likely ones.

*Just a note, this article is focused on exactly how those likely government constructions would work, not how likely they are to happen. 

The Fine Gael minority option

Taoiseach Enda Kenny on a visit Fine Gael, all alone. Source: RollingNews.ie

In this scenario, Fine Gael would form the government themselves but would be reliant on other TDs, probably including Fianna Fáil, supporting or at least not actively blocking them passing legislation.

The party would hold the ministries itself and be alone at the cabinet table. But because Fine Gael on its own is 30 deputies short of a majority, any bills they proposed could easily be voted down by the rest of the house.

In order for them to govern by minority, they would need the tacit agreement of a sufficient number of opposition deputies not to do this.

This would most likely have to include Fianna Fáil who could decide on a vote-by-vote basis whether or not to support the government or stand in its way. Essentially, to neither be a part of nor actively against Fine Gael running the country.

In order to come to some kind of tacit arrangement, both parties would have to at least be on the same page as to the kinds of issues Fine Gael would tackle in government. In talks this week, they’ve so far been unable to reach that point.

08/04/2016.General Election 2016 -Government Forma Kevin Boxer Moran, Shane Ross and Michael Fitzmaurice of the Independent Alliance. Source: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

If such agreement was reached, there are potential positives and negatives to such an arrangement.

On the plus side this approach could, in theory, mean increased cooperation among all deputies.

For instance, it would be in the government’s interest to listen to amendments and suggestions from other TDs because there’d be greater chance of the legislation being passed.

There are potential drawbacks too, however. A Fine Gael minority scenario would mean that the government party would be constantly reliant on the opposition keeping out of their way.

Even if Fianna Fáil and others were honest in their approach and always voted based on what they felt was best, they could essentially take down the government when they wanted to.

In that sense, it’s been argued that this scenario could hold a significant long-term benefit for Fianna Fáil who could force an election if they so wished.

If this scenario were to come to pass, the first time we’d see it in action would be Fianna Fáil abstaining from a Dáil vote on electing Enda Kenny as Taoiseach.

The Fianna Fáil minority option

16/1/2016. Fianna Fail Ard Fheis Fianna Fail, themselves alone. Source: Rollingnews.ie

Michael Martin’s party has only six fewer seats than its main opponent, so the above scenario, except with Fianna Fáil at its head, is also a possibility.

The party would need to continue to court the support of independents and smaller parties and also bank on Fine Gael deciding to go into opposition.

A number of independent TDs like the two Healy-Raes and Mattie McGrath have indicated they’d be more likely to support Fianna Fáil, but there’s still a way to go.

The latest is that 14 independent TDs have said they will abstain from today’s vote and have instead asked the two main parties to figure it out. So in that sense, it throws the ball back to the parties.

That Fianna Fáil minority option for Fine Gael is one which some in the party aren’t necessarily opposed to.

Included among them is Leo Varadkar who has said previously that the onus is on the newly swelled Fianna Fáil benches to try to cobble together a government.

The obstacle, of course, is the fact that a Fianna Fáil minority government would be at an even greater risk of being voted down. They’d need an understanding Fine Gael and possibly even a sympathetic Sinn Féin for it to be workable.

The grand coalition option (Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil)

File Photo: Micheal Martin and Caretaker Taoiseach Enda Kenny to meet this afternoon after second failed attempt to elect a taoiseach following the results of the 2016 General Election. A likely couple? Source: RollingNews.ie

This now appears to be off the table after Fianna Fáil scuppered it in its infancy, but let’s take a look anyway.

Technically, the previous Fine Gael-Labour government was also a grand coalition. The two largest Dáil parties with ostensibly opposing left-right ideologies coming to a consensus to govern together.

The term wasn’t really used though because in Ireland, for good or bad, right-left hasn’t been the main force of friction in our parliament. No, that was the preserve of the schism between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

That’s the main reason why a coalescence between the two old foes is being given the ‘grand’ moniker.

How would it work?

Well, as with any coalition, that would be decided in negotiations between the two parties. As well as merging their policies to develop an agreed programme for government, they’d also have to agree on how the ministries are doled out.

How many departments would Fine Gael and Fianna Fail each get? Who’d get which department? Who would get the formidable Minister of Finance position?

The larger party usually holds most of the cards in these negotiations, getting the biggest and most departments. But the two parties are so close in terms of seats that this wouldn’t be so clear cut this time around.

There were suggestions when Fine Gael’s offer was made that they would split cabinet seats equally and even have a rotating Taoiseach, with Enda Kenny and Michael Martin each holding the position for an agreed period.

Whatever about the likelihood of those variables, once it was agreed the coalition would operate much like those that have gone before it.

- A previous version of this article was published on 10 March. 

Read: A TD who nearly lost her seat is going for one of the most important jobs in the Dáil >

Read: This master dealmaker has some advice for Fianna Fáil about going in with Fine Gael >

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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