Ireland held elections on February 26th, yet no new government has been formed. What does that mean and what will happen next? Is Ireland tumbling into complete political chaos?
Many Americans are confused when they hear that Ireland does not have a government. Of course, we have do have political institutions and civil bureaucracy is trundling along as ever. It isn’t anarchy. What it means is that at the election last February, no political party won a majority of the votes, so two or more parties must form a coalition for the legislature to function. Our Taoiseach (the office most like the US President) is not directly elected; the office goes to the leader of the party that won a majority of votes at the last election. And that’s the problem right now.
The two largest parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, have been negotiating with various smaller parties, independents and each other about forming a coalition to govern, but no grouping large enough to form a majority has been able to agree on enough common policy ground to actually go into coalition. The negotiations are as complex and endless as intricate Celtic knotwork.
Their differences are not the usual left-right split one sees in most countries. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil formed in support of and opposition to the treaty with Great Britain to partition the island and secure independence for most of Ireland while leaving what is now known as Northern Ireland as part of Great Britain. But is not their disagreement now. Now, the bulk of the disagreement between the two center-right parties is water.
Specifically, it is about the formation of an entity known as Irish Water under the previous government, which was a coalition of Fine Gael and the Labour Party.
What’s the Big Deal?
Their differences are actually quite minor. Fine Gael wants to continue with Irish Water charging households for the water they use, and Fianna Fáil basically wants to delay and perhaps modify the pricing system. It’s public sentiment that is huge. From the beginning, people have opposed the water charges for two main reasons – the fact that our taxes have long been used to pay for water and will not be reduced so arguably we would be paying twice for the same thing and the fear that the government will sell the company eventually and we will be faced with the sort of crisis that has left families in Detroit and Baltimore without running water.
Opposition to the water charges has included a mass non-payment movement with about half of those who receive Irish Water bills refusing to pay them as well as huge demonstrations and frequent direct actions where protestors physically block Irish Water contractors attempting to install water meters.
With no sign of a break in the stalemate, it looks increasingly likely that the government will have to call another election. Irish elections do not happen at set intervals as they do in the USA. An election must be called within five years of the previous one, but they can happen much, much sooner. If a coalition breaks up – or fails to form – an election can be called. Watch this space. Voters with very different political views are agreeing on thing – they aren’t pleased with the failure of those recently elected to actually start governing.