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Ireland is unique in making its leadership swap work

Saturday’s simple transfer of power between Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar must be celebrated in context of world politics buckling under autocracy and threat

Like it or not, there is something reassuringly boring about the impending transfer of power between the old Civil War enemies. In a world tortured by preening autocrats, election deniers and gaslighting billionaires, what could be more boring than a scheduled leadership swap sheared of the histrionics, the shady deals and grinning enforcers?

So wonderfully boring in fact that some may wonder why every parliamentary democracy in search of stability hasn’t given it a try. The answer is that Ireland is unique.

Others have tried the rotating prime minister trick but the evidence so far would not be encouraging.

Pioneered by Israel in 1984 in a scrappy arrangement between Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir, the idea known as an “Alternation Government” was resurrected in 2015 and embedded in law in a deal between Binyamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz. The switch never happened. Eighteen months in, when the time came to yield to Gantz, Netanyahu contrived to sink the government and trigger an election. Another attempt by the two succeeding leaders, Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, was frustrated when the coalition lost its majority. Lapid, the unlucky alternate, got the job but in a lame-duck capacity for just four months.


In the 1990s when Turkish prime minister Necmettin Erbakan resigned to honour a rotation agreement with Tansu Çiller, the president took the opportunity to appoint someone else entirely. In Malaysia, a recent period of political turmoil was partly triggered by the refusal of Mahathir Mohamad to set a date for the transfer of power to his alternate. Last August, the Romanian prime minister, Nicolae Ciucă, felt obliged to reassure his designated alternate that the handover would definitely happen next May as scheduled, after a party colleague suggested they might hang on to the job “for stability reasons”. It was “just an opinion”, said Ciucă.

Pocketed egos

The agreements themselves present no problem apparently. In the absence of all other options, two adults agree to pocket their egos to serve reduced terms. The pinch comes when the holder is obliged to hand over the job. In this evidence, the obvious lesson for any politician desperate enough to give rotation a whirl is to ensure he or she gets the first go on the merry-go-round because, given the wobbliness of any such coalition, there may not be a second. Number one prime minister may well be busy developing a taste for the flattery, the power and the trappings while the alternate settles for second dibs and the task of calming the more mouthy troops.

At some point the thought occurs to Number One that it would be a terrible disservice to the people to hand the job over to someone else since he is so uniquely talented for it. Trust ebbs and the coalition starts to crack.

Back here, beyond the early in-party theatrics from Fianna Fáil backbenchers and the Tánaiste’s bouts of attention-seeking to suggest he was still sort-of in charge, everyone settled into a working arrangement that may well serve as an exemplar to other democracies. The fact that Saturday’s relatively simple transfer promises to be uneventful could of course be interpreted as a desperate effort by an ossified duopoly to cling to power; ie hang together or they’ll assuredly hang separately. A more generous assessment would be to acknowledge the achievement of two men who agreed a rare kind of deal under immense pressure and are seeing it through with honour and decency.

The alternative would be to imagine a different version of Micheál Martin poring over last week’s IrelandThinks/Sunday Independent poll which put him eight points ahead of the Tánaiste as the people’s choice for taoiseach. This version might conclude that the people clearly want him to stay and that he couldn’t possibly deny them. If the very idea of Micheál Martin giving two fingers to the rotation deal is laughable it’s because we have the luxury of assuming that such a betrayal would never happen here. That’s no small thing.

Almost forgotten in the mists of Covid and war since the 2020 election is the sense of menace that was bleeding into global politics in the wake of Donald Trump’s refusal to concede the US presidential election. The attack on the US Capitol had happened only a month before. Democracy was seriously under threat.

Trump and Capitol

This was the atmosphere in which the FF/FG rotation agreement was forged, a time when the hashtag Not My Taoiseach – a Trumpian import – was being fired around social media with proud ignorance by people directing others unironically to educate themselves.

If the global shift towards autocracy has taught us anything, it must be to take such movements and their leaders more seriously, however small or stupid. Those who never tangle with social media may be unaware of Twitter/Tesla/Space X owner Elon Musk’s lurches towards the far right, his relentless trolling of the left and pathetic wooing of Trump. These moves beamed out at 190 million followers many times a day have a chilling familiarity about them.

The counterweight is the heroic efforts by politicians, NGOs and indefatigable activists to pull their democracies back from the brink. In the US, we watched the slow burn of the January 6th congressional hearings designed to pin the tail on the donkey who inspired the riots. We witnessed the political self-sacrifice of the hearings’ standard bearers and the mainly successful resistance to Trump’s election deniers in the midterm elections.

In the UK, we watched the alarming right-wing power grab by Liz Truss and her 55 Tufton Street pals, which in the year’s greatest irony was thwarted only by the stampeding markets. We see the Herculean job that lies ahead of Brazil’s new leader to undo Bolsonaro’s malignant environmental, social and economic legacy. And, in recent days, we woke up to the news that 3,000 German law enforcement officers had been dispatched around the country to pre-empt a coup by QAnon-style conspiracists and plotters. Despite the cast of pantomime characters, it carried a grave warning. We are not immune.

Since this is the season of goodwill, it might be a good week to acknowledge our luck so far. It happens to coincide with the centenary of the Civil War and the great accompanying surge of unvarnished historical truth about the butchery on all sides and its futility. Above all, it’s a searing reminder of how our fledgling State was almost strangled at birth while the vast majority yearned for peace and normality.

If this political year had a leitmotif, it was probably best expressed by Wisconsin governor Tony Evers who emerged victorious from a battle against a Trump-endorsed rival with the immortal line: “Boring wins.”