Irish lesson for Clegg: get coalition right or face oblivion

May 10, 2010

If the Irish experience of coalition politics is anything to go by, Nick Clegg risks a lot more than unpopularity if he strikes a half-baked coalition deal with the Conservative Party. He also faces electoral oblivion should he fail to win enough concessions and power to carry his grassroots supporters with him.

Ireland’s pro-business Progressive Democrats (PDs) — relatively loyal junior coalition partners in successive administrations led by former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern — imploded at the last Irish general election, winning just two seats in parliament. They subsequently disbanded altogether.

The losses suffered by the PDs mean Ahern’s successor Brian Cowen now relies on a handful of Greens to make up the numbers but voters have also punished them for supporting an establishment party that has dominated Irish politics for decades, inflicting heavy losses on the Green Party in local elections last June.

Ireland’s Greens have subsequently enjoyed something of a recovery in opinion polls but only after standing up to Cowen, threatening to pull out of the government, issuing ultimatums and wringing concessions out of him, none of which augurs well for Britain’s oft-stated need for a strong and stable government.

Clegg can take some consolation from the fact that one junior coalition partner to strengthen its electoral position after entering into government was Germany’s Green Party. Despite winning less than 7 percent of the vote in 1998, it secured key concessions such as a policy to phase out nuclear power and three ministerial portfolios, including the high profile post of Foreign Minister for its party leader. The Greens — currently in opposition — were the big winners in regional elections at the weekend in which Germans punished Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right coalition.

If Clegg is to enter into government with a party that many of his supporters will feel they have expressly voted against, he will need a strong deal that he can sell to them and to secure a position in government from which he can wield real influence and demonstrate leadership.

If he wants to make a go of it, Clegg is hopefully seeking counsel from Germany’s former Green foreign minister Joschka Fischer  – who, incidentally, made his political bed and his mark in a left- rather than right-of-centre administration — and learning salutary lessons from the ruins of other less fortunate coalition partners.

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