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Making minority government work in Ireland: international lessons

After nearly three decades of majority coalition rule, Ireland is entering a period of minority government, probably supported by a ’confidence and supply‘ agreement between the governing Fine Gael and the opposition Fianna Fail, as well as deals with independent members of parliament. Akash Paun discusses the challenges ahead and the lessons from similar arrangements elsewhere.

Governments without a parliamentary majority can sustain themselves in different ways, as discussed in past reports by the Institute for Government. One option is a pure or unsupported minority government, where the government has no formal relationship with any other party and must build a majority on an issue-by-issue basis.

Despite the apparent fragility of this position, it can work. The SNP’s Alex Salmond governed in this way for four years in Scotland. The Conservative Stephen Harper did likewise in Canada. (Both later won an outright majority.) Success was based on a combination of approaches, including:

  • expectation management – recognising and even making a virtue of the fact that government legislation would be amended or even defeated
  • strategic focus – notably true for the SNP, which reorganised government around a set of strategic outcomes instead of concentrating on legislation
  • building relationships and channels of communication with opposition parties and backbenchers, raising the importance of effective parliamentary whips
  • divide and rule – conceding small but symbolically important things to other parties to keep enough of parliament on-side while advancing your core agenda
  • brinkmanship – when necessary, both Harper and Salmond raised the spectre of resignation and/or an unpopular early election if their plans were blocked.

What is a confidence and supply agreement?

Minority governments may also negotiate a ‘confidence and supply agreement’ with other parties, as now appears to be the preferred model in Ireland. This is a formalised cooperation arrangement guaranteeing support for a minority government on parliamentary votes critical to its survival, whether for a full parliamentary term or a defined period.

Confidence and supply agreements are a middle ground between coalition and pure minority government with a distinct set of advantages and challenges. Such agreements have grown more common internationally. They have been used to sustain minority governments in New Zealand, Australia, Sweden, the Netherlands and elsewhere.

At Westminster, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats each drafted confidence and supply agreements as fallback options in the event that that the coalition deal of 2010 had fallen apart. The Lib-Lab Pact of 1977–78 was an earlier, more limited version of such a deal.

Confidence deals typically make clear that the support party or parties must back the Government on explicit confidence votes, and votes on budgets and supply (government spending). In return, the support parties are given government support for specific policy priorities. In New Zealand, for instance, the National Government has a confidence deal with the Maori Party, which includes a commitment to investment in a major indigenous community health initiative. In Australia, an agreement between Julia Gillard’s minority government and an independent MP included a commitment to fund hospital redevelopment in his constituency.

Smaller parties may negotiate other kinds of concession too. A 2007 deal in Scotland granted the Scottish Green Party the chair of a committee in the Scottish Parliament in exchange for supporting the election of Alex Salmond as First Minister. In Australia, the Labor agreement with the Green Party committed to a range of procedural reforms such as additional time for private member’s legislation and the creation of a new Parliamentary Budget Office to enable smaller parties to access an independent policy costing facility.

Effective consultation and communication

Experience from other countries also points to the importance of ensuring effective communication and consultation between the government and support parties. In Australia it was specified that Julia Gillard and each of the supporting parties would meet once a week when Parliament was sitting, with the Government pledging “to give six working days’ notice of the introduction of legislation to the House.”

The draft confidence and supply agreements between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats at Westminster in 2010 also provided for formal consultation on key issues. The Conservative version provided for “the formal participation of Liberal Democrat representatives in a Financial Stability Council that will be consulted on budget judgements and allocation of spending reductions between departments’.”

Confidence and supply agreements also sometimes set out rights of access to Civil Service information and resources. This was a major source of dissatisfaction for the Liberals under the 1977 Lib–Lab Pact, as the Liberals were treated as an opposition party with regards to privileged access and policy support.

In New Zealand, so-called 'enhanced confidence and supply agreements' have emerged, in which the smaller parties are offered ministerial portfolios outside of Cabinet, meaning that they have executive power and access to Civil Service support, while still retaining the right to oppose the Government on issues outside of their own portfolio.

Another frustration for smaller parties relates to their ability to claim credit for their influence. In Sweden, the Green Party found that the governing Social Democrats would attempt to divert media attention from their policy successes. This led to agreement on processes to give the smaller party greater opportunity to communicate its achievements.

Do confidence and supply deals work?

These examples show that confidence and supply agreements can provide for stable and effective government that offers advantages to both governing and support parties. For the Government, they provide the security of knowing they are not in danger of defeat at every key vote, and without having to give up ministerial posts or negotiate the entire policy programme with another party.

The downside is that in areas not covered by the agreement, the Government still needs to build an issue-by-issue coalition to get business through Parliament. If core elements of the deal need to renegotiated later on, this can cause problems. In the Netherlands in 2012, the minority government needed to impose additional budget cuts but failed to reach agreement with its support party, triggering government collapse and an early election.

For smaller parties, confidence and supply deals allow them to achieve specific policy objectives without having to support the entire government programme, and thereby lose their independent voice in Parliament and wider public debate. But they do have to back the government on often politically difficult budget plans and have less ability to influence policy than if they enter government as junior coalition partners.

How minority government and the ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement works in Ireland will be up to the politicians in Dublin, who have to weigh up these trade-offs. But however the parties choose to organise their relationship, international experience can provide useful guidance about the challenges ahead.

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