By Padraic Halpin and Graham Fahy
DUBLIN (Reuters) – Ireland’s rival Fianna Fail and Fine Gael parties will open formal coalition talks this week after an inconclusive Feb. 8 election, with Fianna Fail’s leader saying the coronavirus outbreak made forming a government “an impertaive”.
Fianna Fail’s Micheal Martin has been seeking to form a government but both he and acting Prime Minister Leo Varadkar of Fine Gael have ruled out governing with Sinn Fein, the left-wing pro-Irish unity party which topped the poll and has an equal number of seats to Fianna Fail in parliament.
That means some kind of deal will be needed between the two center-right rivals and traditional dominant forces who have never formed a coalition government together.
Fine Gael’s initial reluctance, having won only 35 seats in the 160-seat house compared to the 37 each held by Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein, was tempered on Tuesday by the 34 coronavirus cases identified to date that led Varadkar and Martin to meet twice in the last 24 hours.
“Clearly the pubic health crisis has brought a new urgency to discussions. The enormous challenges that are presented to our society makes the formation of a government an impertaive,” Martin said in a video posted by Fianna Fail on Twitter.
COURTING THE GREENS
The two parties, which have swapped power at every election since emerging from opposing sides of Ireland’s 1920s civil war, said they would continue talks with the smaller Green Party, whose support would be needed to reach a majority in the fractured parliament.
Fianna Fail facilitated the last Fine Gael-led minority government from opposition but Martin said last week that he favored a full coalition this time.
The parties said they entered the talks as equal partners, raising the prospect of an agreement to rotate the role of prime minister between Martin and Varadkar.
If they cannot agree a government deal and maintain their steadfast opposition to Sinn Fein – chiefly over its role as the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army – a second election would be the only way to break the deadlock.
The IRA fought British rule in Northern Ireland for decades in a conflict in which some 3,600 people were killed before a 1998 peace deal.
A Feb. 29 opinion poll showed Sinn Fein’s popularity had surged further and that it had almost as much support as its two main rivals combined.
Any coalition deal would have to be ratified by grassroot members of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, for whom a tie-up would have been unthinkable just over a decade ago, when the two held more than three-quarters of the seats in parliament.
Green party members would also have to approve a deal.
“A global crisis will certainly concentrate minds. Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have long traditions of being in government and their members understand that there has to be a government with a majority position to handle a crisis,” said Theresa Reidy, a politics lecturer at University College Cork (UCC).
(Editing by Angus MacSwan and Gareth Jones)