Ireland’s traditional ruling parties have backed a historic deal to govern together for the first time in a three-way coalition with Greens, clearing the path for a new government to take office on Saturday.
Opposition leader Micheál Martin of the centrist Fianna Fáil will take over as prime minister from Leo Varadkar of the centre-right Fine Gael, who will become deputy premier under the deal with Greens that was endorsed on Friday by members of the three parties.
All governments since the foundation of the Irish state in 1922 have been led by Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael and its predecessor. But they have never ruled together after taking opposing sides in the 1922-23 civil war over the terms of the treaty that established independence from Britain.
Mr Martin, a former foreign minister and an MP for 31 years, has led his party since 2011, when it lost power after leading Ireland into an international bailout at the height of the eurozone debt crisis.
He takes command of the coalition as Dublin grapples with the health and economic fallout from coronavirus, which has killed 1,730 people and triggered record unemployment.
“We have chosen this route, it has many challenges. I do not understate the gravity of the situation facing the country,” he said after his party voted by a 74 per cent majority to enter government.
“But on the other hand I think it’s also a moment of opportunity and a moment of hope for our people that we face up to the challenges, overcome them and lead to a better type of society.”
The biggest barrier was cleared when Green activists voted by 76 per cent to join the coalition, surpassing by a comfortable margin the two-thirds threshold required under party rules. Climate policies in a draft government programme had divided the Greens, and some prominent figures called for the deal to be rejected.
“There’s a sense of responsibility on us now because we do have a job to do,” said Eamon Ryan, Green leader.
“We have to go in and help work with our coalition partners in government in actually getting our country out of a really severe economic crisis.”
With Ireland in deep recession and Covid-19 still circulating, the new government’s primary task will be to overcome the pandemic as lockdown restrictions that closed large parts of the economy are unwound.
Mr Martin will be premier until December 2022, when the office will revert to Mr Varadkar. Their agreement to rotate the office of taoiseach reflects their parties’ relative strength in the Dáil assembly which meets in a special session on Saturday to elect the new leader.
Approval of the deal came 139 days after an inconclusive election in February in which Mr Varadkar finished third.
Mr Martin’s party won the most Dáil seats, but Sinn Féin nationalists won the popular vote. He and Mr Varadkar refused talks with Sinn Féin over its leftist policies and links to Irish Republican Army paramilitaries during Northern Ireland’s Troubles that ended with the Good Friday peace agreement in 1998.
After an 80 per cent majority in Fine Gael backed the deal, Mr Varadkar said his party was “united and strong and prepared for the challenge” of returning to government.
“I’m confident and hopeful that we’ll see all three parties endorsing this coalition agreement today, able to establish a new government tomorrow and get down to work and get busy,” he said.