Tony Heffernan’s take on the 12 months since #GE2020
Twelve months on from the 2020 general election (8th February) seems an appropriate time to review how the government has done since then and to assess its prospects for the remainder of the 33rd Dail.
Terms like ‘political earthquake’ are often overused to describe election outcomes, but there is little doubt that the 2020 results more than live up to this description. While the surge in Sinn Féin support was evident from various polls during the election campaign, few people (including Mary Lou McDonald and her colleagues) expected that the party would emerge with the biggest share of the popular vote (24.5%). Even fewer predicted that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael between them – parties that once could have depended on the support of more than three quarters of Irish voters – would be reduced to 43% of the popular vote.
When the dust settled on the election result, and once it emerged that neither Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael were prepared to bite the bullet of going into government with Sinn Fein, it was clear that the only possible administration was one consisting of the two ‘traditional’ parties along with one other element.
It took five months of shadow boxing and tortuous negotiations to entice the Greens into government. These negotiations took place against the background of the biggest health crisis the country had ever faced and when the public were much more interested in surviving the pandemic than what party got what in the Programme for Government.
It is no exaggeration to say that the new government had a torrid opening period. Initial rows about the geographical spread of the cabinet, were quickly followed by controversy about Junior Ministers and their expenses and the loss in quick succession of two Fianna Fáil Ministers for Agriculture. And before the summer recess was even reached, two Green TDs (their Party Whip and a Junior Minister) failed to support a government vote on important legislation.
The two issues that have totally dominated political life since the general election have been COVID-19 and Brexit. Ironically having to face up to two such major challenges has probably helped the cohesion of the government and ensured that other controversies that might have presented political problems (Leo’s ‘leak’) have been kept under control. The government has also been helped by the fact that there has been a significant degree of cross party consensus on Brexit and –until recently anyway – on the COVID-19 crisis.
Sinn Féin, with six times more seats than the next biggest opposition parties, gets the lion’s share of opposition time and its front bench team have had some successful hits. Alan Kelly, as the new Labour Party leader has had an impact in his first few months and expanded Social Democrats have been vocal and active.
However, the overall impact of the opposition parties has been limited by two factors – the consensus on Brexit and Covid and the requirement for health reasons for the Dáil to sit in the National Convention Centre. The cavernous Convention Centre has killed the ‘theatre’ of parliament. A masked opposition leader, putting a question to a masked government minister sitting maybe 30 metres away, has nothing like the dramatic impact of close quarter exchanges across the floor of the Dail.
So, will the government last? It certainly has many challenging issues to overcome. It looks like the COVID-19 crisis will be with us in one form or another until the end of the year, at least. While the nightmare scenario of a no-deal Brexit was averted, the full impact of the U.K. withdrawal is not yet clear. Countering the impact of the COVID-19 crisis has come at an enormous economic cost. While national finances have held up better than expected and the cost of borrowing money has never been cheaper, the economic chickens will come home to roost at some stage – probably in the final years of the government’s term of office.
There would not appear to be much incentive for any of the parties in government to bring the administration down. The general pattern in the opinion polls since the government was formed has been Fine Gael and Sinn Féin doing well, Fianna Fáil down and the other parties generally hovering in or around where they were in the general election. Leo Varadkar is guaranteed another term as Taoiseach from December 2022 once the government survives. With Fianna Fáil down in the polls, it cannot relish the prospect of an early election. And the leadership of the Green Party seem determined to stay the course and ensure implementation of the significant policy wins they secured in the Programme for Government. They also know from their own painful experience in 2011 and the experience from other elections, that smaller parties tend to pay a disproportionate electoral cost.
If there are backbench defections, they would seem to be most likely to come in the Greens. The three parties in government have 85 seats between them but in the election for Taoiseach last June Micheál Martin secured the support of a number of Independents to bring his total to 93. At least some of these Independents could probably be depended on to compensate for any defections.
By law the next general election will have to be held by February 2025. Those making political predictions inevitably end up with egg on their face, but on balance there would seem to be a reasonable prospect of the government at least surviving well into 2024