Step aside, Roz Purcell and Pippa O’Connor. Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar are currently Ireland’s trendiest influencers. Mere weeks before our rotating Taoiseach system is due to be implemented, as Varadkar assumes Martin’s role, the British government decided that they too wanted to experience the thrill of a new leader. Unfortunately for Old Blighty, they went slightly overboard, and ended up turning over three prime ministers in as many months.
It is remarkably easy to make jokes about this situation; as this situation is nothing short of absurd. Liz Truss, shortest-serving prime minister in British history, was outlasted on a Daily Star livestream by a head of lettuce. Her quote at Prime MInister’s Questions (PMQs) that she was a “fighter and not a quitter” became instantly disprovable twenty-four hours later, when she tendered her resignation outside the door of 10 Downing Street (which will presumably be replaced by a revolving door soon, if recent patterns are anything to go by).
See? Jokes about this situation fly from brain to fingertips to keyboard quicker than Britain goes through Tory prime ministers. There has been an undeniably giddy fascination amongst Irish people at the farcical goings-on across the sea, and this comes as no surprise. Of course people are going to laugh at other countries’ politicians; it makes us forget how unstable our own politics are. However, in all seriousness, as we inch ever closer to the day that Leo Varadkar returns to the role of Taoiseach, it is important that we are not blinded to our own government’s absurdity too.
“The issue is not that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil don’t work well together. The issue is that they work too well together”.
Britain’s instability came about from mass resignations, investigations over misleading parliament, and a mini-budget that was always doomed to fail. The Irish government, on the other hand, signed off on their own political instability back in June of 2020 when Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil defied decades of conventions and agreed to go into government together. This marked the end of a division between the two parties dating back to the days of the Civil War. For over one hundred years, they were separated by a seemingly impassable chasm, and yet somehow… the chasm was passed, with startling ease. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil slotted into government together effortlessly. A year and a half into this government’s tenure, it has become apparent that any instability we have faced, be that the exacerbation of the housing crisis, numerous scandals concerning government figures breaking Covid-19 lockdown rules, or good old-fashioned cronyism, the issue is not that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil don’t work well together. The issue is that they work too well together.
In an interview with The Irish Times on October 28, former Fianna Fáil Taoiseach Bertie Ahern (who absolutely won’t be running for President in 2025, why do you ask?) gave his two cents on the coalition government. Ahern echoed what more and more people in this country are beginning to believe, that “you would be hard-pressed now if you were to take down 40 policy positions from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and find a difference”. He also said that you could not rule out a merger of the two parties in the coming years. The reality of modern-day politics in Ireland is that both of these centre-right parties have become so indistinguishable from one another that their failures have intensified and combined in the public mind. When the next election comes around, Fianna Fáil cannot run on the premise that Fine Gael have not solved the housing crisis, but don’t worry, they will. Voters have seen that both parties in government together have merely confirmed the status quo. Overcrowded hospitals, skyrocketing rents, and mass youth emigration are no longer the failures of one party, but both.
So far, this strange coalition (which also includes the Green Party, who are currently only polling at 3%) has been headed by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, with former Taoiseach Leo Varadkar as Tánaiste. Typically, in a coalition government, the leader of the largest party becomes Taoiseach, while the leader of the smaller one is Tánaiste. However, there was a near three-way tie in the 2020 general election, with Fine Gaeil winning 35 seats, Fianna Fáil 38 (including Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl), and Sinn Féin 37 seats. Both Martin and Varadkar ruled out any coalition with Mary Lou McDonald, and so in order to avoid a minority government, they had no choice but to join forces. However, with the two parties separated by only three seats, the rotating Taoiseach system was born. This idea is not a new one, though it has never been put into practice before. Now, after two-and-a-half years of Martin as Taoiseach, the reins will be handed over to Varadkar on December 15, in a smooth process with no complications.
Or rather, it would be — except that this is Irish politics. Complications are the norm. For anyone (including me) who had a right old laugh at the British political circus a few weeks ago, reality has unfortunately hit home.
In order to accommodate the smooth and peaceful transfer of power from Martin to Varadkar, there was a step-by-step plan laid out by the government. First, Martin will offer his resignation to President Higgins (and thus, the entire government technically resigns too). Next, the Dáil will hold a vote to re-elect Varadkar as Taoiseach (assuming nothing monumentally controversial happens in the next month, it is safe to assume that the entire government, Fianna Fáil TDs included, will vote Varadkar in). Finally, Varadkar will have to travel to Phoenix Park to receive his seal of office, officially making him the Taoiseach. In theory, this all seems very simple. However, the final European Council Summit of the year is also on December 15. Rules dictate that a country cannot be represented by a deputy leader, so the government faced the dilemma of either removing Martin from office prematurely or delaying the assumption of Varadkar. It seems the government have decided on the latter, moving the big date to the 17th. Phew! All problems solved, right? No.
If you are the type of person who enjoys laughing at both British and Irish politics, this next complication is right up your street. Back in May of 2022, two British prime ministers ago, Northern Ireland held its election. Similar to the 2020 Irish general election, the two main parties, Sinn Féin (SF) and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) were split by only two seats in SF’s favour. However, since the DUP refused to nominate a deputy first minister, and thus power-sharing could not be achieved, the executive could not be formed. Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris had insisted that if an executive was not formed by the 24-week mark after the May election, another election would be necessary in Northern Ireland. The provisional date set for this election was, you guessed it, December 15. While Heaton-Harris has since come out and said that there will not be an election before Christmas, he may have no choice, as the rules state that after the initial 24-week period, the wait for an election can not be any longer than 12 weeks. The latest the election could be is therefore January 12, but this would mean campaigning over Christmas. Not exactly the most festive of activities, is it?
“Of course, Ireland wouldn’t be facing these complications if we had a stable Taoiseach, instead of the wink-wink-nudge-nudge agreement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.”
I doubt the possibility of a contentious election in Northern Ireland and date disputes over European Council meetings were on Varadkar and Martin’s wish list this Christmas, but it looks like that is what December will bring them. Of course, Ireland wouldn’t be facing these complications if we had a stable Taoiseach, instead of the wink-wink-nudge-nudge agreement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Just after the election in 2020, a poll done by TheJournal.ie found that almost two-thirds of people did not want a rotating Taoiseach. Yet here we are.
Almost three years down the line, can we say the country has gotten better? Perhaps the cuts to public transport costs have been beneficial, but that was the Green Party’s initiative, not the two main coalition parties. The housing crisis has surely gotten worse. Adequate student accommodation is harder to come by than ever. Hospitals are still overcrowded. Homelessness is still on the rise.
But, hey, did you see that the lettuce won? That was bloody hilarious.