The implosion of the Irish government

The implosion of the Irish government, and the main party in the governing coalition, Fianna Fail, has been quite a spectacle.

After narrowly surviving an internal leadership battle, Taoiseach (PM) Brian Cowen saw five of his own party’s cabinet ministers resign. Shortly thereafter, Cowen himself resigned–as party leader. It is very unusual in parliamentary democracies for the leader of the main party in government not to be the PM, but for the first time in the history of the Fianna Fail, the usual governing party in Ireland, that is now the case.

How long this anomaly can last–if it can even go till the now-scheduled 11 March general election–is anyone’s guess. Elections may have to be moved up, now that the main coalition partner, the Green Party, has pulled its support.

3 thoughts on “The implosion of the Irish government

  1. There has been quite a few examples in Norway of the prime minister not being a party leader. Kåre Willoch was leader of the Conservative party 1970-74 and PM 1981-86. Kjell Magne Bondevik was party leader 1983-95 and PM 1997-2000 and 2001-05. Jens Stoltenberg was PM 2000-2001 and since 2005, but didn’t become party leader until 2002. Oddvar Nordli was PM but never party leader. Gro Harlem Brundtland resigned as party leader in 1992, but continued as PM until 1996. I can think of a couple of German examples as well. Gerhard Schröder was Chancellor 1998-2005, but party leader 1999-2004, while Helmut Schmidt was never party leader.

    There have been both advantages and disadvantages with such arrangements. Some of the periods with split leadership in the Labour Party (Nordli/Steen 1976-81 and Stoltenberg/Jagland 2000-2002) are generally seen as unsuccessful, and to some extent reflecting compromises between different wings in a split party. But the periods with split leadership in the Conservative and Christian Democratic parties were generally periods when these parties were at the height of their support, and the Brundtland/Jagland split Labour leadership 1992-1996 was also a quite successful time for the party. One advantage is that it gives the party leader more time to concentrate on party affairs, and for promoting the party’s policies and interests in a coalition government, were the PM may have to take the interests of the coalition partners into account.

    Additionally, there’s probably been some cases in several countries were the prime minister did not come from the largest party participating in the government coalition. Baunsgaard in Denmark, Borten and Bondevik (2nd gov.) in Norway. Perhaps Prodi in Italy, though the distinction between parties and alliances complicates things there.

    And the Green Party in Ireland really did cut a “deal with the devil”, as Ciarán Cuffe predicted before entering the coalition with Fianna Fáil. Finally entering government for the first time ever, and then this whole financial crisis blowing up in their face. Don’t think they achieved that much on the high-profile environmental issues in Ireland either, like Shell to Sea and the Tara highway.

  2. The Taoiseach in the first coalition government in 26 counties, John A Costello, was not leader of his party. The actual leader of the Fine Gael party at the time, Richard Mulcahy stepped aside as the price for a coalition for a minor left republican party, Clann na Poblachta. Mulcahy had been commander of the government forces during the civil war, and had carried out reprisal executions of some Republican leaders, and was thus not acceptable to the former IRA activists in the Clann. Costello subsequently became party leader however.

    An interesting aspect of the controversy that led to the collapse of the coalition-the objection by the Green Party to the replacement of Fianna Fail ministers after the sudden resignation of six retiring members of the Cabinet-was the defence of the Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, who claimed that there was an established convention that the party leaders in a coalition cabinet had the discretion to replace vacant seats allocated to their party, without reference to their coalition partner. This was quite a damaging line of argument, in that Cowen was accussed of putting his partys electoral interests over the future of the government and the passage of the budget.

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