After 70 days (or 10 very long weeks) of intense political jockeying and horse-trading, a new government has been formed in Ireland on Friday, May 6, after 4 previous—and obviously unsuccessful—attempts. For a time, it seemed that it would never come to pass, but thanks to the parties involved, it has—with the parliamentary vote of 59-49, the Irish Parliament (or Dáil Éireann) elected the caretaker Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny, to the same office he has held for the last 5 years. After these trying last months, Irish eyes might not necessarily be smiling, but they are certainly weary.
Though it will be a government similar in makeup to the one that was in place before the Feb. 26 election, with many of the same ministers in the same cabinet positions, such as Charlie Flanagan as Foreign Minister and Michael Noonan as Finance Minister, it will still be different. There was one surprising appointment: thanks to the nomination of feminist theologian and independent Senator Katharine Zappone of Dublin, Ireland will have its first openly lesbian member as a governmental minister. (She will not be the first gay member of the government, however; Minister for Health Leo Varadkar came out just before the 2015 same-sex referendum, which subsequently passed overwhelmingly. After the 2016 general election, Varadkar became Minister for Social Protection.) Ms. Zappone will become Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. She also holds another distinction: after the legendary Eamon De Valera, she will be the second American-born member of an Irish government. (Born in Washington State, the 62-year-old Zappone has degrees from Boston College, the Catholic University of America and University College Dublin).
The new Kenny government will differ from his previous one in that it will be of minority rule: Mr. Kenny’s Fine Gael party will hold the reins of government without the assistance of its previous coalition partner, the Labour Party, as a result of its poor showing in the February elections, when it lost enough seats to stop being a factor in governance.
Mr. Kenny’s new government could only be formed through the “toleration” of its historic arch-rival, the Fianna Fáil party, which was a significant achievement in its own right, given their shared history. Though both parties are center-right, they have historical animosities arising from the foundation of the Irish state and the Irish Civil War and the opposing sides each took in the aftermath of the infamous 1921 treaty that resulted in a divided Ireland (in more ways than one).
There had been talk for a time of a historic coalition between the two parties; a coalition between the pro-Treaty party of Michael Collins (which became Fine Gael) and the anti-Treaty party of Eamon De Valera (which became Fianna Fáil) would have been an unheard of development, and precedent breaking. But it was not to be and could not be, given the deep historical roots of animosity between Ireland’s two major parties. The best Mr. Kenny could do was to hold onto his base and get whatever independent votes that were willing to support his leadership, which is what happened: with the 50 members of his own party, he managed to obtain 9 independents to get him over the bar. So, out of a parliament of 158 members, he got the 59 votes he needed to stay on in his position. As a result of that, 3 of those independents were promised seats at the cabinet table.
It has not been an easy time of it for Enda Kenny of County Mayo. In addition to being the Taoiseach, he also has the distinction of being the longest-serving TD in the parliament. He was first elected in 1975 upon the death of his father, the previous member for Castlebar, County Mayo, Henry Kenny. Because of the length of Enda Kenny’s of service in the national government, it has entitled him to be known as “Father of the House.” Given the trials of the last few years, not only to the county, but also to his leadership, Kenny might not find himself the “Father” or Taoiseach for much longer, as some commentators suggest. It was a close-run thing to get a government established, given the conditions surrounding the election and its aftermath.
The only certainty coming out of this post-election period is that the period of this government is to be of three years’ duration. And given the less-than-firm foundation of that new government, Mr. Kenny might well decide to hand over the reins of party leadership to someone else before this term has concluded in order to give a new leader a chance to consolidate his/her hold not only on the party itself, but on the government as well. Mr. Kenny has indicated that he will not run for a third term, so a new leader is likely before too long.
When the electoral impasse was finally overcome on April 29 when the Fianna Fáil party (led by Micheál Martin) agreed to let Mr. Kenny’s party control the government, it did so without resorting to a formal power-sharing government that a coalition would require. Instead, Fianna Fáil will support the government informally, on a case-by-case basis, that is, vote-by-vote arrangement. Such a governing arrangement had never happened before, but it suits both sides. But it may well suit Fianna Fáil more: though it was the governing party when the economic crisis hit over 5 years ago and was voted out of office and replaced by Mr. Kenny’s Fine Gael, the tides have been turned when it staged a near come-from behind comeback in the recent election, but not enough to take control of the government. Fianna Fáil will bide its time and wait for its chance to lead “The Soldiers of Destiny” once again through the halls of Leinster House.
For Mr. Kenny, the task he set for himself after he was re-elected will be a daunting one: he vowed to create “a more caring, a more prosperous and a fairer Ireland.” He will have myriad problems to deal with; arrayed before him are the problems of the banking sector and interest rates, housing and infrastructure issues. Education and water charges, along with concerns over Britain's possible "Brexit," (and how it could affect Ireland's foreign and economic policies) are also hot-button issues that have to be contended with, as well. In his long political career, Mr. Kenny has survived one setback after another and has managed to overcome them. He, like his country, has come a long way since the economic crisis, but not with disaffection and dissension.
Though his government’s austerity policies have gotten Ireland through the worst of the financial crisis and is regarded by the European Union as a model for recovery, there is still a long way to go. His policies nearly led to his departure from office, yet he has managed to stay on; he has the distinction of being the first head of an austerity government of a European country to be re-elected. He also managed to be the sitting head of government to lead the Irish nation in the commemoration of the Easter Rising of a century ago. That may well be the cap of a long political career, but he continues to lead Ireland in the job he sought so long to get and fought so hard to keep. That has been his magical first act. How he manages his last act, no one knows, perhaps not even the “Father of the House.”