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According to the Independent on Sunday, a coalition of the Green, Plaid Cymru and the SNP are plotting an election pact to try to secure a majority in favour of electoral reform in the House of Commons at the next election. Labour and the Liberal Democrats are alleged to be colluding in a similar vein.

The former three will be inspired – and the latter two ought to be deeply dissuaded – by the complete car crash of a general election which just unfolded in the Republic of Ireland.

For those who missed it, a précis: the incumbent government was a coalition of Fine Gael, a centre-right party from the Republic’s least Republican tradition, and Labour, a centre-left party. That looks bizarre to us, but is thoroughly normal in Ireland.

This is because, with the exception of Fianna Fáil, no Irish party has ever been large enough to form a majority government. As the second and third largest parties, Fine Gael and Labour have to cooperate (often with other parties) to take office.

In 2011 both parties looked to have achieved a breakthrough, with Fine Gael gaining almost enough seats to govern alone and Labour becoming the second-largest party as Fianna Fáil were smashed.

Had Fine Gael taken a few more and Labour been able to head up the opposition, or Fianna Fáil ever taken their oft-considered step and shifted away from proportional representation, things might have been very different.

Instead, Irish politics has splintered dramatically. With 148 of the 158 winners declared, Fine Gael has just 47 seats whilst Fianna Fáil has risen from 20 to 43 and Sinn Féin are up from 14 to 22.

Meanwhile Labour languish on a mere six, down from 37 in 2011, whilst far-left group Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit (AAA-PBP) have five, the newly-formed Social Democrats three, the Greens two, and the ‘Workers and Unemployed Action Group’ (WUAG) one.

There are also 15 Independents, and four more elected under the umbrella of the Independent Alliance.

As things stand, there is only one party combination that offers stable government: the heretofore unthinkable partnership of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in a grand coalition. As each party has its genesis in the two sides of Ireland’s post-independence Civil War, there is much joking about the ‘end of civil war politics’ at the prospect.

But they’re not keen, for one obvious reason: such a government would leave Sinn Féin as the principle party of opposition. With a generation of voters raised after the Troubles giving the party their increased success in Irish elections, this risks seeing Sinn Féin make major advances if this government proves unpopular.

For those voters who won’t countenance voting for Gerry Adams’ party, and there are plenty, the only alternative would be a selection of left-wingers. Renua Ireland, a new right-wing party which split from Fine Gael, has not returned any TDs.

Some commentators believe that none of this will overcome the major parties’ well-established urge to grasp power – after all, Ireland has seem ‘impossible’ coalitions formed before.

Besides which, would a second election produce a better result? (Ireland is not saddled with fixed-term Parliaments as Britain currently is, so there wouldn’t be any constitutional hurdles to calling one.)

Not for Labour, in all likelihood. Their experience – of a left-leaning party serving as junior partner in an austerity government – mirrors that of the Lib Dems, and warns the latter that Proportional Representation is no shield from the voters’ wrath.

Fine Gael could do better: they’re widely regarded as having run a very poor campaign (despite help from the Tories), which saw their support slip from somewhere north of 30 per cent to around 25 per cent at the time of writing. But if neither Labour nor Renua have many TDs it’s hard to see many natural coalition partners for them.

It’s Sinn Féin who could easily improve their performance if they managed to depose Gerry Adams, who proved a liability on the campaign trail, although not by enough to achieve their one-time hope of supplanting Fianna Fáil as the principle Republican party south of the border.

If neither major party can clearly see how a second poll would boost their fortunes, whilst it could very likely help Sinn Féin if the latter acquire a new leader, a new election isn’t happening.

This leaves Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil and hope for all they’re worth the electorate don’t want to deliver them both a kicking next time. If the two main parties can’t turn things around in coalition, they could be setting up a much more dramatic election still.

This election has seen Ireland do what Ed Miliband thought Britain had to do: respond to austerity by moving left. Without the buttress of First Past the Post, with its strong incentives towards broad churches and compromise parties, the disintegration of Ireland’s party system could have yet further to run.

32 comments for: Ireland’s traditional party system could be making its last stand

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