Rotating premiership in recession should force 'spiky pragmatism' on Irish leaders

Padraic Halpin
Ireland's national election

By Padraic Halpin

DUBLIN (Reuters) - Bitter rivals since civil war nearly a century ago, Ireland's two main centrist parties joined forces for the first time on Saturday under a deal that requires alternating prime ministers during the worst recession in memory.

Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin was named prime minister, replacing Fine Gael's Leo Varadkar, who will move to another office in the same building to serve as Martin's deputy. Half way through the five-year term, Martin will step aside and give Varadkar back the job.

"This is an historic occasion," said Varadkar, who packed up his belongings late on Friday, including a portrait of Michael Collins, Fine Gael's founding hero, shot dead in 1922 during the war that has divided Irish politics ever since.

"I believe civil war politics ended a long time ago in our country, but today civil war politics ends in our parliament."

Varadkar leaves office with a record 75% approval rating, a more than doubling since the February election due to his handling of the coronavirus outbreak, tamed with a lockdown that caused mass economic disruption.

The need to cooperate to fight recession should force the parties into a "spiky pragmatism", said Theresa Reidy, a politics lecturer at University College Cork. But it also creates opportunities for Fine Gael ministers to undermine Martin and vice versa when Varadkar returns.

"There will be levers and tools at their disposal that undoubtedly they'll want to use to advantage their own political parties," Reidy said.

For generations, the only political rivalry that mattered in Ireland was between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, which fought each other in the 1920s over whether to accept a treaty with Britain, a quarrel with enduring resonance for families on either side.

The two parties' streak of dominating Ireland's politics was broken this year by left-wing Irish nationalists Sinn Fein, who won the largest share of votes in the election and will now take over as the official opposition.

While Varadkar tweeted that Collins' portrait would be back in the prime minister's office, opposition politicians reminded him of the barbs he and Martin had exchanged, including his description of Martin's record as "a disaster."

Coalition agreements that rotate the premiership have been tried in other countries: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held onto office this year with a similar plan.

The Irish agreement includes an equal share of cabinet seats and a rotation of attorney general, a role often held by a lawyer with links to the governing party. It may also extend to the role of finance minister.


(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Peter Graff)