Ireland’s parliament has elected a new prime minister, installing Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin at the helm of a grand coalition with the party’s historic rivals Fine Gael.
The centrist party leader succeeds Leo Varadkar of the centre-right Fine Gael, who becomes deputy premier in a three-way deal with the Greens that ended months of deadlock following February’s inconclusive election.
He will be taoiseach until December 2022, when the office reverts to Mr Varadkar, in a novel arrangement to rotate the position that reflects numbers in the Dáil assembly.
Mr Martin took power at lunchtime on Saturday at a special parliament sitting in a large convention centre in Dublin, rather than the smaller, traditional chamber in the 18th century Leinster House, in an attempt to maintain social distancing.
In his maiden speech, the new leader said the pandemic would be the government’s defining challenge. “While there is no doubt that we have achieved important progress since March, the struggle against the virus is not over,” he said.
“This is the fastest moving recession ever to hit our country and to overcome it, we must act with urgency and ambition.”
The coalition deal was emphatically endorsed on Friday by members of all three parties, paving the way for a historic alignment that reshapes the country’s political landscape.
Every government since the foundation of the Irish state in 1922 has been led by either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael and its predecessor. But having taken opposing sides in the 1922-23 civil war over the terms of the treaty that established independence from Britain, they have never ruled together.
Mr Varadkar, taoiseach for the past three years, said the deal would underpin stable government. “I believe civil war politics ended a long time ago in our country, but today civil war politics ends in our parliament.”
After several weeks of talks delayed by coronavirus disruption, the agreement reflects the fragmented parliament that emerged from the election almost five months ago.
Without the Greens, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael lacked seats for a parliamentary majority. There had been divisions within the Greens over climate policy in the coalition’s programme for government. But the deal was eventually backed by 76 per cent of the party, which is likely to have three ministers in the cabinet.
Fine Gael was beaten into third place in February behind Fianna Fáil, which took the most seats, and Sinn Féin nationalists, who won the popular vote. Both the traditional ruling parties refused talks with Sinn Féin over its leftist policies and links to IRA paramilitaries during Northern Ireland’s Troubles.
Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Féin leader, criticised the coalition deal on Saturday, saying it was a marriage of convenience “to buy time and keep others out” of government.
Mr Martin, a former foreign minister and a Dáil member 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. A long period in the wilderness followed before the party slowly began to recover.
But the February election was still a disappointment for Mr Martin. Excluding the speaker, his party won 37 of 160 Dáil seats, well short of expectations.
He becomes taoiseach as Dublin struggles to overcome coronavirus, which has killed 1,730 and led to record unemployment. With the virus still circulating, Mr Martin takes office as lockdown restrictions that closed large parts of the economy are gradually unwound.
“There are restrictions which remain in place for some time and no one can say today when we’ll return to something close to normality,” he said.