Ireland’s new government: what next for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil?

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4 months after Ireland’s historic election, Ireland has a new government. Sinn Féin, the party that won the most first preference votes, are not part of it. Instead, the election that was seen by many as the rejection of Ireland’s two traditional main parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, has yielded a government that includes both of them.

This is the very first time the two parties have been in government together. The previous government, a minority Fine Gael government, relied on a confidence and supply agreement with Fianna Fáil, but this is the first time the two will be in formal coalition together.

Such an arrangement is being seen by many in Ireland as the beginning of the end of ‘civil war politics’. For a long time, there has been little to separate Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in terms of policy positions on things such as economics and social values. While there are small differences, both could comfortably be described as centre to centre-right parties that occupy the same ideological territory.

The two traditional main parties are now considerably weaker than they once were.

The difference lies in history and the Irish Civil War. In rudimentary terms, the difference lies in historic stances around the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Fianna Fáil was founded by the anti-Treaty Éamon de Valera, while Fine Gael derived from the pro-Treaty Cumman na nGaedheal and is heavily associated with de Valera’s rival, Michael Collins. 

Voting often stemmed from historical and familial loyalties, rather than clear right-left, or any other, policy differences. This had been the case for many years with a broad alternation of power, largely dominated by Fianna Fáil. This was until 2020, when Sinn Féin won a record 37 seats, more than Fine Gael and one less than Fianna Fáil, to create a three-way split.

The two traditional main parties are now considerably weaker than they once were. The formation of a coalition between the two of them is a symbol of that. Much of Sinn Féin’s success in the election is seen as a representation of frustration amongst some voters, particularly the young, at the lack of change, partly due to the major similarities between the two major parties.

The 2020 election demonstrated the Irish electorate’s growing appetite for change.

The question, then, is where this leaves Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil long-term.The 2020 election showed that many people still have faith in the traditional two, but that it is waning. The fact that the job of Taoiseach, Ireland’s Prime Minister, will be rotated between Micheál Martin, the leader of Fianna Fáil and Leo Varadkar, the leader of Fine Gael, serves as a symbol for the similarity of the two parties. There is now a growing question of whether Irish politics has room for both of them.

The 2020 election demonstrated the Irish electorate’s growing appetite for change. Supporters of Sinn Féin have largely been denied that as historic divisions were put aside to keep them out of government. But that in itself represents a major change in Irish politics that may have a long-lasting impact. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael may be in government together right now, but with the civil war divide seemingly out of the way, there is increasingly less and less to divide them. 

There may be a point where the electorate no longer sees a use for both of them, and either they, or the parties themselves, may have to pick just one to support.

Image: by William Murphy via Flickr

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