Coalition cautionary tale from Ireland

Posted on behalf of Brian Walker, Honorary Senior Research Fellow

Students of the perils of coalition government can look to Ireland this week for a prime example of political mismanagement in a crisis.

Brian Cowen, the beleaguered Taoiseach (prime minister), emboldened by winning a secret ballot of his parliamentary party on his leadership earlier this week, suddenly asked for the resignations of five retiring ministers. None of them had opposed him as far as is known, but they had declared their intention not to stand at the forthcoming election. With his party Fianna Fail facing defeat or even annihilation at the polls, Cowen’s aim was to build an election campaign team of new faces.

But the Taoiseach reckoned without the two Green party coalition partners in his 15 strong cabinet, whom he had conspicuously failed to consult. In a hectic political atmosphere, the Greens vetoed his cabinet reconstruction plan and compelled him to assign the five vacant portfolios to surviving ministers. Cowen was also forced to take over foreign affairs himself from the one minister who had opposed him in the party ballot.

What’s more, as a condition of remaining in government to pass the “bailout” budget imposed by the EU and the IMF, the Greens insisted that Cowen name the election date he’d badly wanted to defer – which he duly did, for March 11. The Greens’ veto was particular potent as in the Irish system, the Dail (Commons) votes to approve new ministerial appointments. Cowen’s list would have failed to gain approval, thus almost certainly precipitating a general election before the budget could pass.

It’s hard to blame the Greens for this political and governmental fiasco. Cowen and  his Fianna Fail party brought it on their own heads by trying to pull a typically arrogant  Fianna Fail “stroke.” In former old days as the natural party of government, they might have succeeded. But with their poll rating languishing at 14% – and that before the current shambles – those days have long gone.

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