140 Days: With government formation taking longer, do we need a guide?

It took an unprecedented 140 Day for the Irish government to be formed. Does this suggest we need some mechanism to speed up the process?*

While it is always theoretically possible to form a majority coalition, the level of fragmentation in the Irish party system in 2020 was at a record high. The effective number of parliamentary parties was 5.98. For the first time no two parties could form a majority in Dáil Éireann. There were serious calls for a National Unity government.

An ‘Index of Coalition Difficulty’ attempts to estimate how difficult government formation could be given the level of fragmentation (measured as the effective number of parliamentary parties (ENP) and the size of the largest party:

= ENP*sqrt(50-percentage of seats held by largest party).

Higher values indicating likely greater difficulty in government formation.[i] In 2020 it was at 29, up from 21 in 2016 and 7.3 in 2011, suggesting coalition formation would be a lengthy affair.

This appears to be a trend in several countries, such as Belgium and Netherlands, where the government formation process is getting longer and longer. The May 2019 election in Belgium (ICD = 56) saw the previous parliament’s caretaker government remain in office, which was reaffirmed by parliament in March 2020 to allow it deal with the covid-19 crisis. Over a year after its election the country was still unable to form a new government commanding a majority. In the Netherlands (ICD=43) government formation took 225 days after the 2017 election. Spain (ICD 26) and Israel (ICD=19) had seen similar difficulties in forming a government in 2019 and 2020, though their constitutions stipulate time limits which meant they were forced to call new elections.

The Irish Constitution is silent on government formation, and there was a sense of urgency that the political system could become paralysed if it could not constitute a full Seanad, something the High Court confirmed following warnings from the Attorney General and, very unusually, the Secretary General to the Department of the Taoiseach, Martin Fraser.

There seemed no urgency on any of the parties form the government quickly. Ireland lacks any even informal mechanism to encourage parties to form a government. The most obvious person to do this is the President. S/he is nominally non-partisan (though it’s becoming harder to sustain the argument that they are non-political). S/he is the only political actor who has a possible constitutional role in government formation, via the right to refuse a dissolution of the Dáil to a Taoiseach who does not have the confidence of the Dáil. How might that work?

Many European countries allow the Head of State appoint a formateur (A kind of Taoiseach candidate to lead the process of the formation of a government) or an informateur (an honest broker to identify and facilitate a possible viable coalition). Though there was a case where a President had informally spoken to outgoing Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, if it was needed that he act as an informateur in 1987, the President took no involvement in government formation in 2020, though he might have felt that not all possible government formations had been fully explored and so refused a dissolution on those grounds.[ii] The drawn out process of government formation in 2020 might lead to some thought about how government formation can be sped up in the future, and whether the President is the appropriate figure to assist that.

*This is an amended extract from ‘The Slow Formation of Government in 2020’, a chapter by Eoin O’Malley in Michael Gallagher, Michael Marsh and Theresa Reidy (eds) How Ireland Voted 2020 to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in September 2020.

[i] Eoin O’Malley, ’70 Days: Government Formation in 2016’, in M. Gallagher and M. Marsh (eds.) (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan), 2016, pp. 260-2.

[ii] Garret FitzGerald, All in a Life, 1991, Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, pp. 644-5.

2 thoughts on “140 Days: With government formation taking longer, do we need a guide?

  1. Part of the problem is surely the perceived need to form a ‘majority’ government.
    There are good examples of effective parliamentary democracies working quite well with ‘minority’ governments. Canada being one obvious current example. Four of its last six general elections have produced minority administrations (run by two different parties) and the country carried on without the kind of angst that appears to have bedevilled the Irish & Belgians

  2. Perhaps the greatest incentive is to not pay anyone until a government is actually formed. All parties have had four years to prepare their positions. Dail numbers will then dictate how much of their agenda they get. It seems the drawn out process is more about internal party back stabbing than any ideological issues.

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