• Sun. Oct 23rd, 2022

February’s election led to a historic agreement between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, but the new Government was plunged into turmoil several times in a rollercoaster year.

Jan 2, 2021

February’s election led to a historic agreement between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, but the new Government was plunged into turmoil several times in a rollercoaster year.
General Election
On 14 January, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar called a General Election ending weeks of speculation about a date.
It was the first time since 1918 that an election was held on a Saturday.
Fine Gael was hoping that by having voters go to the polls at the weekend it would help to secure the votes of working families and younger people.
“A future to look forward to” was Fine Gael’s slogan in the campaign. Mr Varadkar also said at the time that the economy had never been stronger.
Little did he know that a global pandemic was about to hit, bringing the economy to its knees and resulting in thousands of people being unemployed across the State.
After almost four weeks of campaigning, the nation went to the polls on 8 February in the 2020 General Election.
There were 531 candidates across 39 constituencies, with 159 seats up for grabs – with the outgoing Ceann Comhairle automatically re-elected.
Sinn Féin was the big winner, securing 37 seats, an increase of 14 on the 2016 election.
Fianna Fáil finished with 38 seats, down six seats on 2016, while Fine Gael secured 35 seats, 15 fewer than the last election. The Green Party won 12 seats, an improvement of 10 from 2016.
No party secured the 80 seats needed to achieve a majority. Sinn Féin’s attempts to form a government with parties on the left failed. This led to weeks of Government formation talks between Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and the Green Party.
Covid-19 and the caretaker government
Covid-19 threw the country into a public health and economic crisis, with a caretaker government at the helm.
Huge decisions were being made, and funding for support schemes was being announced to help people and businesses hit by the pandemic at an unprecedented rate, without the proper oversight and accountability that would usually exist.
Questions were raised about why, at a time of crisis, the country was reliant on a caretaker government without a mandate to make some of the biggest decisions ever taken in this history of the State.
The economy was shut down, wages for workers told to stay at home were paid, and private hospitals were nationalised, to name but a few of the major moves.
Key ministers were signing off on these decisions, but had lost their seats in the General Election.
Coalition negotiations
Ireland’s proportional representation, single transferable vote electoral system, combined with the two bigger parties losing their historical dominance, resulted in a Dáil made up of many different parties and groups and a long period of negotiations.
There was criticism about the slow pace of the talks between Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party, with some political commentators saying the discussions lacked the urgency required in the midst of a global pandemic.
Smaller parties like Labour and the Social Democrats were accused of not showing any interest in governing.
New Government formed
140 days on from the General Election, on Saturday 27 June, a new three-party Government made up of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party was eventually formed after the parties endorsed a programme for government.
The historic Dáil sitting was held at the Convention Centre in Dublin due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Dáil vote to elevate Micheál Martin to his new job as Taoiseach went without a hitch. For the first time, every Fine Gael TD voted for a Fianna Fáil Taoiseach.
The agreement marked the end of a bitter political rivalry between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, which had dominated Irish politics since independence.
Coalition’s shaky start
The new Government had one of the rockiest starts in Irish history. The first four weeks of the new Government were dominated by u-turns, ministerial pay hikes and cuts and the sacking of a new minister.
The fact that there was no senior minister from west of the Shannon sparked tension. Then, deputy leader of Fianna Fáil Dara Calleary, who was regarded by many as a shoo-in to Cabinet, was offered the position of Chief Whip. Many Fianna Fáil TDs expressed their shock and anger at the decision.
This was the first of many controversies for the Taoiseach in the early days.
More trouble followed, after Agriculture Minister Barry Cowen lasted less than a month in his position before he was sacked by the Taoiseach following revelations about a drink driving incident.
Green Party leader Eamon Ryan heaved a sigh of relief after facing down a challenge from deputy leader of his party Catherine Martin.
The new Government was also forced to row back on a decision to push through legislation to give three ‘super-junior’ ministers a €16,000 pay hike at a time when hundreds of thousands were out of work due to the pandemic.
Rotating Taoiseach
For the first time in the history of the State, the office of the Taoiseach will be rotated between two party leaders. A new chapter in Irish politics began when agreement was reached that Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin would take up the role first, with Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar set to take up the reins in December 2022.
This was a risky decision by both parties. There was always the chance that as soon as one party had their turn as taoiseach, it would have much less incentive to keep the Government going. The rotating taoiseach did seem to be the answer to the political deadlock before the Government was formed, but how the arrangement works out remains to be seen.
Green Party
The Green Party had reason to celebrate after the General Election, securing 12 TDs making it the fourth largest party elected to the Dáil.
After much debate and resistance by some, the party took the plunge and entered Government with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The party secured three senior ministerial positions in Government.
On the outside things looked like they were on the up, but internally the party was in turmoil. Eamon Ryan’s leadership was challenged by his deputy leader Catherine Martin  – a challenge he narrowly survived.
Green Party election candidate Saoirse McHugh was one of the first to jump ship when she left the party, saying the coalition would do damage to the idea of environmentalism by linking it to socially regressive policies. A crisis erupted over the Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman’s mother-and-baby home legislation, leading to a number of high profile members resigning, including Cork councillor Lorna Bogue and chair of the Young Greens Tara Gilsenan.
Green TD Neasa Hourigan resigned from her position as party whip – after voting against the Government on a new Bill dealing with tenants’ rights. More recently there have been reports of rows in the party over a contentious vote on an EU-Canada free trade deal which has been deferred until the New Year.
Eamon Ryan will have a challenge on his hands in 2021, when he will have to work to unite a party that has been split for some time.
In August, the Government was again thrown into turmoil when the Irish Examiner published a story about TDs and senators who were among more than 80 people to attend a function at a Galway hotel, during the coronavirus pandemic. The controversy led to a garda investigation, the resignation of the Agriculture Minister Dara Calleary and the EU Commissioner Phil Hogan.
Supreme Court Judge Seamus Woulfe dug his heels in when he came under pressure to consider his position. Mr Justice Woulfe insisted his actions did not warrant him losing his job. A line was effectively drawn under the issue when Taoiseach Micheál Martin announced the Government would not be taking any action against him, ruling out an impeachment motion.
Seamus Woulfe appointment
The spotlight then moved to another controversy involving Seamus Woulfe. In November, the Minister for Justice Helen McEntee found herself at the centre of a crisis over the appointment of Mr Woulfe, the outgoing Fine Gael-appointed attorney general to the Supreme Court. The Opposition wanted to know why she had appointed Mr Woulfe without telling the other coalition leaders that five other sitting judges had also applied for the role.
For two weeks, Minister McEntee faced ongoing pressure to answer questions in the Dáil. The Minister bowed to the pressure and gave an account to the House of the selection process. During the session she acknowledged that there was “room for improvement” in the system of judicial appointments.
There were no knock-out blows and the Minister survived the session without any long-term damage to her future.
Just as TDs in Leinster House began to wind down for Christmas, signals began to emerge of the possibility of a no-deal Brexit.
After a rollercoaster year for TDs and ministers – and an air of fatigue in Leinster House – many hoped it wouldn’t come to pass. They were well aware that a no-deal scenario would be a devastating blow to Ireland’s economy on top of Covid-19.
Persistent disagreements between the EU and the UK over fishing meant agreeing a deal went right down to the wire.
Eventually after months of grinding and sometimes fraught negotiations on Christmas Eve, an agreement was reached before being approved by UK politicians on 30 December. Britain’s departure from the European Union took full effect at 11pm on New Year’s Eve, allowing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to fulfil his promise to “get Brexit done”.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin expressed his relief, saying it was the “least bad version of Brexit possible”.