In this article I would like, on the basis of my personal experience of working in coalition governments in Ireland, to put forward some ideas that may be useful in other countries.
But first it is necessary, for international readers, to say a word about the party political landscape in Ireland during the period of my political career, 1969 to 2004.
During this time, there were five major parties in Irish politics, all of whom had some involvement in coalition governments at different times.
These were, in declining order of size
- Fianna Fail (a traditional nationalist party, which until 1989 had refused to take part in coalitions on principle),
- Fine Gael (a centrist party in the European Christian Democrat tradition),
- the Labour Party (social democrat party with trade union links),
- the Democratic Left (a socialist party since merged with the Labour party) and
- the Progressive Democrat party( a party that espoused liberal economics which has since been wound up).
I served in four different coalition governments, 1973-1977, 1981-2, 1983-87, and 1994-1997.
In addition to the coalitions in which I served during this period, there also have been a Fianna Fail/Labour coalition(1992/94), and a Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrat coalitions (1989/92 and 1987/2002).
Fine Gael and Labour had also participated together in coalitions in the 1940’s and 1950’s.
I was a junior Minister in the 1973/77 coalition governments involving Fine Gael and Labour, a full Cabinet Minister in the second and third(1981/2), and Taoiseach (Prime Minister) in the fourth one(1994/7).
All the coalitions in which I served involved my party, Fine Gael, as the largest party, and the Irish Labour party the second largest. There was also a third party, Democratic Left, in the 1994-1997 Government.
I will headline below the lessons I have derived from my experience.
HAVING A PARLIAMENTARY MAJORITY IS A BIG HELP !
The parties in the 1981-2 Government did not make up a majority in the Dail (parliament), hence the government’s short life.
While it did obtain a majority vote for an emergency budget shortly after taking office in 1981, it could not persuade a majority to vote for its more comprehensive budgetary proposals in 1982. The result was a General Election, which the parties lost. They were succeeded by a minority Fianna Fail Government, which introduced a budget almost identical to the one they had voted against in order to bring down the previous coalition.
The reason having a majority is particularly important to coalition governments is that internal negations between the coalition parties themselves will tend to be difficult enough, without the added complication of negotiating with individual deputies, or parties outside the government, to ensure a majority to pass individual measures one by one
All the other coalitions, apart from the 1981/82 one, had a working majorities for all business on which the parties could agree, but the 1983-87 coalition broke up because the parties could not agree between themselves on policy for the 1987 budget.
A THIRD PARTY IN GOVERNMENT CAN MITIGATE TENSIONS.
The 1994-1997 coalition of three parties, which I led as Taoiseach, was the only three party Government in Irish history, and the only one to be formed in the middle of a parliamentary term, without a General Election.
A realignment of parties to form that new government without a General Election was made possible by bye election victories for parties in opposition earlier in the parliamentary term. It was also necessitated by a breakdown in trust between the Labour Party and Fianna Fail, with whom Labour had formed a coalition after the 1992 General Election.
My personal opinion is that the dynamic of a three party coalition is easier to manage than that of a two party coalition. This is because, if there is a difference between two of the parties, the third one can often be the catalyst for compromise. The presence of three party in the coalition can avoids binary conflicts on a given issue, where one or other of only two parties has to lose face.
THE DYNAMIC OF COALITIONS WILL VARY, DEPENDING ON HOW THEY CAME ABOUT ………….
The parties in the 1973-77 and 1994-7 governments remained united and faced the General Elections of 1977 and 1997 respectively, seeking re election on a joint programme. This is a testament to good relations between the coalition parties, In the other cases, the outgoing coalition parties contested the elections separately. To date, however, no coalition government of the same parties has been re elected.
The internal dynamic of each of the four coalitions in which I was involved was different. The personalities involved were different, and personality traits are very important in politics.
But the circumstances of their election, and the relativity in size of the parties and economic conditions also made a big difference.
A coalition that had already agreed a joint programme before the election from which it emerged, as was the case with the1973/77 coalition, probably has a better chance of staying together for it full term, and seeking subsequent re election on a joint programme, than has a coalition that is not negotiated and formed until after the election from which it emerged.
This is so for the following reason. If parties have fought an election on different and competing programmes, and subsequently have to negotiate a joint programme involving the inevitable sacrifice of points on which they had fought the election, this will make the subsequent life of the government more difficult. Such parties are more likely to be accused of “broken promises”. But agreeing a joint programme before an election, in which coalition parties will still be competing for votes with one another, is not easy either.
…………………………..ON THE RELATIVE SIZE OF PARTIES’ REPRESENTATION
The 1973-1977 Fine Gael/ Labour Government was first elected in 1973 on the basis of an agreed platform, which encouraged electoral cooperation between them and maximised their seats. The leaders of the two parties had experienced the frustration of opposition, having served in parliament for a long time, mostly out of power, and this made them personally determined to hold the government together, notwithstanding the substantial differences in interest between their support bases. Labour had a strong influence on the taxation policies of this government, which reflected the number of seats they had.
In the parliaments of the 1981/2 and 1983/7 periods, the Fine Gael party was numerically stronger relative to Labour, than it had been in the 1973/77 period, and this had to be reflected in the content of the government’s economic policy. Economic conditions were difficult because of international circumstances, and framing fiscal policy was thus a hard task .Labour influence was exercised to resist reductions in public spending, which inevitably increased the overall tax burden.
……………………………ON ECONOMIC CIRCUMSTANCES
The three party coalition of the 1994/97 period served in more benign economic times.
Economic growth accelerated rapidly during the term of office of the government, which made the framing of fiscal policy easier than it had been in the 1980’s.
While Fine Gael was the bigger party, Labour had more parliamentary strength than it had had in the parliaments of the 1980’s, and this additional strength was reflected in the fact that Labour, although still the smaller party, held the Finance Ministry, a post that the bigger party had always held in previous coalitions. This ensured that there was a better sharing of responsibility for fiscal policy between the parties than may have been the case before. This reduced tension. The Democratic Left also played a key role in facilitating compromise as indicated earlier.
……………………………ON SYSTEMS FOR MANAGING INEVITABLE DIFFERENCES
The 1994/1997 government also benefitted from having a more structured system for resolving policy differences between parties and ministries than had been the case in earlier coalitions.
Ministers from all three parties each had two advisors who were political appointees.
One was a “Programme Manager”, whose job it was to work with his/her own Minister and the other Programme Managers, to ensure that the agreed programme of the three parties was implemented across Government.
The other appointee was a conventional political advisor who looked after his/her Minister’s political interests, relations with his party etc.
In my view, the Programme Manager system was particularly effective in ironing out technical disputes on politically sensitive issues that had absorbed too much time and emotional energy at cabinet meetings of previous coalitions.
As a general rule, as Taoiseach, I did not take an issue to cabinet unless differences had first been ironed out, or simplified, by the Programme Managers, or in discussion between the three party leaders.
……………………..AND ON UNDERSTANDING A SMALLER PARTY’S DIFFICULT ROLE.
The relationship between a bigger and a smaller party in a coalition is a sensitive one because experience in Ireland has been that the smaller party tends to get more of the blame, and the bigger party more of the credit, for what the coalition does in government. Thus the smaller party runs the risk of doing relatively less well in the subsequent election.
Dealing with this problem is a primary responsibility of the leader of the bigger party, the Taoiseach of the day. To this end in the 1994/7, I minimised, to some extent, my own media appearances to allow attention to be taken by other Ministers, including Labour Ministers.
I also arranged for regular separate meetings of Fine Gael Ministers where we discussed issues that might be coming up well ahead of time, with a view to identifying ways to manage any of them that might otherwise cause friction between the parties at the cabinet table.
Argument at cabinet should be a last resort!