DUBLIN (Reuters) - The leaders of Irish rival parties Fianna Fail and Fine Gael agreed on Tuesday to govern together for the first time if they can get additional support to form a coalition two months after an election since overshadowed by the coronavirus crisis.
Fierce rivals on the centre-right, the two dominant parties have swapped power throughout the nation’s history since emerging from opposing sides of Ireland’s 1920s civil war but their combined support has diminished in recent years
No longer able to command a majority together, they need the support of at least one smaller party or eight independent lawmakers to control the fractured 160-seat parliament.
The two parties said in identical short statements that the leaders had agreed the framework document and would brief their respective parties on Wednesday.
In an internal email to Fine Gael lawmakers seen by Reuters, party chairman Martin Heydon said the leaders reaffirmed their commitment to forming a majority government of three or more parties with “an equal partnership between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail at its centre.”
Leo Varadkar’s caretaker government has imposed a series of restrictions to slow the spread of the coronavirus but no new legislation can be passed until a new government is formed and selects the remaining members of the upper house of parliament.
The parties negotiating teams struck the broad agreement on Monday after a month of on-off talks. It includes the need for a national economic recovery plan to overcome the coronavirus lockdown of the country, a source familiar with its contents told Reuters. [L5N2C12W8]
Both parties refuse to govern with the left-wing, pro-Irish unity Sinn Fein party, which surged to 37 seats in the February election, the same number held by Fianna Fail and two more than Fine Gael’s 35.
That leaves the Green Party, which has 12 seats, and the centre-left Labour and Social Democrat parties, with six seats each, as the only viable partners. All three have so far shown little enthusiasm to join such a coalition.
A number of the 20 independents in parliament - many of whom are ex-Fine Gael and Fianna Fail members - are willing to join and would likely number enough to reach a majority.
However, senior Fine Gael members, including Varadkar and his acting finance minister, Paschal Donohoe, have suggested the participation of a third party could be a precondition of Fine Gael continuing in office.
“It will be odd,” Acting Employment Affairs Minister Regina Doherty of Fine Gael told national broadcaster RTE when asked about the prospect of sharing power with their bitter rival.
“But what I know about Irish people is we tend to set aside our differences when there’s a bigger issue at hand.”
Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Alison Williams and Janet Lawrence