Via Financial Times

Ireland’s traditional ruling parties have struck a deal to govern together for the first time, clearing the way for opposition leader Micheál Martin to take over as prime minister from Leo Varadkar in a three-way coalition.

The agreement on Monday between Mr Martin’s centrist Fianna Fáil, Mr Varadkar’s centre-right Fine Gael and the Greens follows an inconclusive February election in which Sinn Féin nationalists won the popular vote but not enough seats for a parliamentary majority. Mr Martin and Mr Varadkar will rotate the position of prime minister.

If the deal — which hinges on approval by party membership in the next fortnight — goes ahead, it would shatter a system that has survived for almost a century. All governments since the foundation of the Irish state in 1922 have been led by Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael and its predecessor.

But the parties, which took opposing sides in the 1922-23 civil war over the terms of the treaty to establish independence from Britain, have never ruled together. “This is the original divide in Irish politics that, as a result of them agreeing to go into government if they do, is coming to end,” said David Farrell, head of politics at University College Dublin.

The breakthrough follows several weeks of talks that were delayed by the coronavirus lockdown, which closed large sectors of the economy. It comes 128 days after an election in which Mr Martin’s party won the most seats and Mr Varadkar trailed into third place. Each refused talks with Sinn Féin over its leftist policies and links to IRA paramilitaries during the Northern Ireland Troubles that ended with the 1998 Good Friday peace pact.

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Irish taoiseach Leo Varadkar on a bus in Dublin. He will serve as deputy to Mr Martin before taking over as premier in 2022
Irish taoiseach Leo Varadkar on a bus in Dublin. He will serve as deputy to Mr Martin before taking over as premier again in 2022 © Niall Carson/PA

Battling coronavirus and the economic shock it set off will be the incoming government’s biggest task. “The programme for government does represent . . . a new departure in terms of how we deal with key issues from housing, education, health and above all the challenge of our generation which is climate change,” Mr Martin said.

In the joint plan for government, the three parties said Covid-19 had “upended our certainties and changed our world”. They added: “We are asserting our ambition to meet these challenges, repair the damage that has been inflicted by the pandemic, and take the renewed spirit arising from these challenging times and translate it into action.”

The parties want to boost housing, healthcare and public transport and cut greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 7 cent per cent annually. But the incoming government faces severe fiscal pressure.

Although Ireland has started to ease lockdown restrictions, the country is grappling with a 26 per cent unemployment rate and a forecast €30bn budget deficit this year, following a 2019 surplus. The parties promised a stimulus plan next month to kick-start the economy and said they would set out a “medium-term road map” to reduce the deficit in the October budget.

“Our focus will be to get people back to work as quickly as possible. Our aim is to create 200,000 new jobs by 2025 as well as helping people currently unemployed due to Covid-19 back to work,” they said.

In a signal that Dublin’s Brexit policy would not change with the new government, they said implementing the protocol to keep open the border with Northern Ireland would be a “key priority”. The deal will defer a rise in the pension age to 67 which was due to take force next year, with pension policy to be reviewed by a new commission. 

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As the parties set about persuading activists to back the deal, the Greens are seen as the biggest potential stumbling block. They require a two-thirds majority to enter government and members are divided, although ambitious climate targets mark an effort to woo them. 

Catherine Martin, the Greens’ deputy leader who led its negotiation team, is also vying to take the leadership from Eamon Ryan after recently seeking a vote. 

“The most obvious challenge is in the Green party. It’s particularly challenging in the context of the leadership election that’s now going on in that party,” said Mr Farrell.

Mr Varadkar said the deal included strong commitments to rural Ireland, a key constituency for his party, as well as better subsidies for childcare and increased spending on public transport.

Mr Martin, an MP since 1989 and a former foreign minister, will serve as prime minister until December 2022, when the office will revert to Mr Varadkar, who will be deputy premier until then. The plan to rotate the office of taoiseach, never tried before, reflects parliament numbers. Excluding the speaker in the 160-seat Dáil assembly, Mr Martin’s party has 37 seats and Mr Varadkar’s has 35.

“The only equivalent I could think of would be if the Democrats and the Republicans in the US agreed to rotate the presidency and form a cabinet of both parties. It just rips the party system,” said Mr Farrell.