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Saturday 23 September 2023 Dublin: 5°C
Leah Farrell
There’s no need to panic, this is a political evolution, not a crisis, writes Maura Adshead.

WHAT WILL FIANNA Fáil and Fine Gael do next? Who knows what they will do, but here’s three things that they should do.

First, acknowledge the extent of the mandate that they received. Second, recognise that the political landscape in which they work has now changed completely. And third, embrace the fact that this is not a crisis – it’s a wonderful opportunity for both parties to be co-authors to positive change for Irish politics.

In relation to the mandate, a recent University of Limerick election study, surveying voter attitudes and intentions before the election, confirmed in detail what has been evidenced in national polls and surveys on Irish voters for some time.

That is, when Irish voters are asked whether they vote for a Taoiseach and government, or for a party, or for a representative for their local area, most Irish voters respond that they vote for someone to represent the interests of their local area. Some respond that they vote for a party, but very seldom do Irish people regard their constituency vote as a vote for government.

Misreading the situation

In our survey, it was not uncommon for voters to support a local representative from a party that they thought should not be in government! Therefore, to assume that that the numbers of TDs for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael reflects a popular desire for a Fianna Fáil / Fine Gael government would be to misread the situation.

Probably the opposite is true. Having conclusively rejected the Fianna Fáil coalition in 2011 and expressed less dramatic but equally clear disappointment with the current Fine Gael coalition, the prospect of both together will likely lead some to despair of the possibility for real change.

Irish general election PA Wire / Press Association Images PA Wire / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

And looking at the constituency level results, change appears to be what many people voted for. Across the country, in every area, the results tell the same story: those who gained seats and those who lost seats; the growth in support for new parties and independents; and the proportions of support between older established parties, all illustrate that Irish voters were expressing a preference for something different.

So how do we get something very different from something that looks very much the same? First, as the old cliché goes, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael must recognise that they have a problem. Or at least, that they will have a problem if they do not adjust their current political thinking to something more appropriate and applicable to the decisions that they currently face.

A changing Irish political landscape

Just as King Canute illustrated to his courtiers that he was unable to turn back the tide: the strategists in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil need to explain to their politicians that now is not the time to stand in resolute in denial: it is time to acknowledge the changes that have taken place in the Irish political landscape and act decisively.

It used to be that it was possible, for one party at any rate, to enjoy majority government.

This time passed in the late 1980s and coalition became the norm. Throughout the 1990s and thereafter, it used to be possible to make up simple coalitions, with one dominant party plus the support of a smaller party and/or independent TDs.

This time has now also passed. It may be that new party blocks will emerge in the future and that there will be some form of party realignment in relation to left and right, but this time is yet to come.

The prospect of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael merging to form one party is the illusive dream of people who do not vote for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Equally, the idea that either party will finally win out and annihilate the other is the illusive dream of people who do vote for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

Neither is likely to happen anytime soon.

Irish general election Brian Lawless Brian Lawless

For the foreseeable future Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will be two large, but not dominant parties. Sinn Féin is growing. And the independents and smaller left groups and parties are too many to be ignored, but too diverse to cohere. Our old understanding of a simple coalition between a senior and junior partner to government is irrelevant and useless in this political terrain. But this is not a political crisis, it is political evolution. As with all evolutionary tales, those who adapt are best placed to survive and thrive.

No reason to panic

There is no reason to panic. Many European states operate in the same kinds of political environment and do perfectly well.

In fact, the living standards, health outcomes and political stability in countries like Denmark, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands might lead some to suggest that their way of doing politics even works a bit better than our own.

The models for government are varied. Some operate routinely with minority governments and some operate grand consociational coalitions (a bit like the arrangements for representation in Northern Ireland).

What they all have in common, however, are strong parliaments that are able to craft legislation that effectively incorporates the diverse interests and opinions of their members into a robust consensus.

If both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael acknowledge the mandate received from the outcome of the election and recognise the changed political circumstances that now pertain, both should see that reform of the Dáil is in each of their party’s long term interests.

They can continue to play under the current rules and hope and pray for increased numbers to secure their place as senior coalition partners in an old-fashioned coalition: or they can face the reality that such coalitions are less and less likely in the future; and that there might be other ways to secure their influence.

They may no longer be dominant parties, but they are both still large parties and a reformed Dáil would give them opportunities to exercise a commensurate influence. Dáil reform would be in the interests of all the other members of the Dáil too, giving them the chance to contribute to politics and policy in the areas where they have most expertise or experience.


This is not a winner takes all politics. It’s a hard-working negotiative politics. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael may not be winners in the 2016 election, but they need not be losers either.

No one has the appetite for another election and there is little to suggest that the outcome would be much different. Yet both parties are securely placed to put in place a coalition for reform – to secure their future in a reformed system that delivers real change and the possibility for a new kind of positive and productive politics.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael need to get with the message from Irish voters everywhere: a centenary after the rising, the best gift they could give to the people would be a final break with the past.

Maura Adshead is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and Public Administration at the University of Limerick. 

Read: Enda admits he won’t be re-elected Taoiseach on Thursday>

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

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