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Explainer: What is a 'rotating taoiseach' and how would it work?

The idea is one of the options being floated ahead of potential coalition talks.

general-election-ireland-2020 The leaders of the three largest parties at last week's debate. Source: PA Images

THE MAKE-UP of the country’s next government is some way off becoming clear, but it’s quite possible the eventual result will be a historic one.

There are several potential options being talked about. In the mix, the idea of a ‘rotating taoiseach’ has been floated.

The idea is not a new one but it has never been attempted in practice, so doing so would be an unprecedented step.

So what does it mean?

Traditionally in Irish coalition governments, the leader of the largest party becomes taoiseach and leader of the junior partner becomes tánaiste.

There are many examples of this since the first coalition government in 1948, but the most recent example is Fine Gael’s Enda Kenny and Labour’s Joan Burton.

What complicates things in the current situation is the fact that the three largest parties in the new Dáil are so even in terms of seat numbers.

result

It means that if two of the three parties entered into government together, neither party would be much larger than the other. 

In the case of Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin, seen as potentially the most-likely combination of the three, the parties would be almost even.  

Both won the same number of seats in the election with Fianna Fáil keeping hold of the seat of ceann comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl, who was re-elected automatically. 

It is this equality of numbers that has given rise to the prospect of two parties in a coalition rotating the position of taoiseach during the government’s term. 

This is not the first time the idea of a rotating taoiseach has come up.

It was mooted in the 1990s when Labour was enjoying the fruits of the ‘Spring Tide’, but Dick Spring’s idea was dismissed by both Albert Reynolds and John Bruton.

Four years ago, Enda Kenny was also said to have suggested the idea to tempt Micheál Martin into a grand coalition. This carrott was not enough to see Martin bite, however.

How would it work?

In theory, this would be agreed by the parties as part of programme for government negotiations.

During this period, the parties also wrangle over the number of cabinet seats each gets. With the parties so level in the current situation, it is possible they could split these down the middle. 

When it comes to agreeing on a rotating taoiseach, the parties would have to agree on the mechanics of how it works. Such as, which party leader starts the term as taoiseach and when the switch would be made. 

It’s been suggested that this could be after a period of two or two-and-a-half years. Again though, this would depend on what the sides agree should happen. 

The Dáil has to vote to make someone taoiseach, so switching them would also require approval by the Dáil.  

Lecturer in the School of Law in NUIG Dr Eoin Daly has also pointed that if a taoiseach did step down to enable the rotation, the entire government would also have been deemed to have resigned also. 

Of course, the new taoiseach could simply appoint the same ministers again, or undertake a reshuffle, but it demonstrates the inherent challenges presented by the idea.

Daly also says that rotating the office of taoiseach presents other challenges, particularly in terms of the power dynamics between the two coalition partners.

Coalitions work on the basis that either side has the power to bring the government down. But in the case of a rotating taoiseach, the party waiting for its chance as taoiseach may be unwilling to bring the government down in advance of the switch. 

“There’s a massive advantage to whoever goes first, because once they’ve had their go
the incentives are lopsided,” Daly told TheJournal.ie.

The bargaining power is completely lopsided, because they have a lot less to lose at that point from a coalition collapse.

Daly adds this would have an effect from the start of the term because the party who begins as taoiseach knows the other side has potentially more to lose, shifting the dynamics from the beginning.

Aside from those issues though, Daly says the idea of a rotating taoiseach could work because a cabinet is meant to make decisions together anyway, rather than taking directions from a taoiseach.

In theory the government is a collective authority and reaches decisions collectively. There’s no provision in the Constitution saying the taoiseach has, technically speaking, more of a say in a decision than anyone else.

Despite that, it’s the taoiseach’s two most important powers that gives them the authority required to lead the government. 

He or she has the power to advise the president to dissolve the Dáil and he or she also has the power to hire and fire ministers at will. And those are the two critical powers, they’re really like a gun to the head of everyone else because that’s how a taoiseach really get his way. Because if things don’t go his way, he can always pull the plug.

While this may sound like it could cause problems in the concept of a rotating taoiseach, a Fianna Fáil taoisech firing a Sinn Féin minister, for example, they are issues inherent in any coalition government. 

Has it been done elsewhere?

The concept of a rotating taoiseach was successfully implemented in Israel and could potentially be used there again.  

A parliamentary deadlock in 1984 led to a number of parties coming together to form a unity government that saw Shimon Peres becoming prime minister before it rotated to Yitzhak Shamir two years later. Both men were from different parties.

A similar deal was mooted last year as a result of  Israel’s ongoing deadlock in forming a new government.

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About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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