Small parties can wield big influence but must ruthlessly prioritise

Recent Irish political history has shown that the old Civil War parties want power and are willing to cede policy priorities to coalition partners

Small parties often have an outsize influence in Irish politics. Recent history shows how motivated, well-organised and clear-eyed small parties have often set much of the policy direction in coalition governments with larger parties. If anything, despite the decline of old duopoly of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – at first slowly, then quickly – the influence of small parties has grown.

The Progressive Democrats were the trailblazers for the tail wagging the dog. Their coalition with Fianna Fáil in 1989-1991 – the first coalition ever contemplated by the old natural party of government – delivered a centre-right economic policy of tax cuts and promotion of inward investment. In his memoirs, PD leader Des O’Malley recalled: “We quickly came to realise that for Fianna Fáil, power took precedence over policy. Office mattered, ideology did not. Thus it was not so hard to get your way with them.”

The Labour Party followed, entering coalition with Fianna Fáil in 1992. As Stephen Collins related in his account of the period, The Power Game, Fianna Fáil leader Albert Reynolds was “happy to adopt the bulk of the Labour agenda on issues like ethics in government, Dáil reform, the introduction of divorce, the decriminalisation of homosexuality and extra health and social welfare spending”. Some of these policies would be brought to fruition by the subsequent Fine Gael-Labour-Democratic Left government which took power after the Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition fell apart in a welter of recriminations; the leadership of the government changed, but the fact of the smaller party’s hand guiding the tiller on important and distinctive policies remained the same.

The Progressive Democrats returned to government in 1997 with Bertie Ahern and Mary Harney striking a much more sustainable partnership than the 1989-1992 coalition. Ten years of tax cutting, of tax incentives and an ultimately disastrous – but, let us not forget, electorally popular – property boom followed. Fianna Fáil was just as happy in a centre-right government as it had been with a centre-left one. It was the PDs that gave the governments their ideological flavour.


The tradition has been carried on by the current coalition. The reason why this Government has taken such far-reaching steps on climate action, including legally binding targets that impose unavoidable obligations on government departments to deliver on carbon-reduction targets, is not because Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have suddenly realised that climate change is an existential threat to the world. It’s because they did a coalition deal with the Green Party.

The Greens, learning from the successes and failures of small parties in previous coalitions – including their own, in the disastrous 2007-2011 government – drove a hard bargain on the programme for government and now spend all their time ensuring it is implemented.

In Ireland lots of parties and deputies actually don’t want to be in government – too much hard work, too difficult to explain hard decisions, too incompatible with presenting easy solutions to problems

The Greens’ key insight was to understand, as O’Malley did, that the old Civil War parties wanted power and were willing to commit to a policy price for it. The task then becomes ensuring that price is paid. To date they have met with reasonable success.

So what can the small parties, one of which gained a new leader this week when Holly Cairns was crowned (if that’s the right word) by the Social Democrats, learn from this history lesson?

1: A small party has to be distinctive and get noticed.

This is much harder nowadays than it used to be. Dick Spring was able to dominate Dáil opposition to Charlie Haughey, but he had a lot of the pitch to himself. Cairns and her Social Democrats must contend with the fact that they are not exactly alone in flying the flag of social democracy. They are one of two small social democratic parties in opposition, and at least some of the policies pursued by successive governments – especially when it comes to growing public spending and the size of the public sector – are social democratic in character.

But just because being distinctive and getting noticed is harder, it doesn’t mean it’s any less necessary. The small parties in Opposition need to distinguish themselves from Sinn Féin, rather than row in behind them. I’m amazed there hasn’t been a peep out of them about Sinn Féin’s finances, for example. Above all, they need have an answer to the question: what do you get from them that you don’t get from anyone else?

2: Be clear about what you want.

Small parties that are successful in government ruthlessly prioritise the things they care most about. Consequently, they have to be prepared to put up with lots of things they don’t like, in order to get what they really want. They have to be clear about this is advance of the negotiations on a programme for government. It’s too late to figure that out when the negotiations start.

3: You must actually seek to be in government.

You can’t do anything without power. This might seem obvious, but in Ireland lots of parties and deputies actually don’t want to be in government – too much hard work, too difficult to explain hard decisions, too incompatible with presenting easy solutions to problems. Labour hasn’t been interested in government after the last two elections; neither, really, has the Social Democrats. Solidarity-People before Profit will never find a government that is socialist enough for them. As they demonstrated this week – warning that a left-wing government would face being overthrown by the gardaí and the Army at the behest of the ruling class – they are deeply unserious about lots of things, including actually being in government.

Some Independents are available for government but they will always be an inferior choice to a disciplined party. Ultimately, Independents can only deliver their own vote, so they have a weak bargaining hand.

Of course, small parties can often lose much of their support after a period in government. But as the PDs demonstrated in 2002, that doesn’t have to happen. And even if it does, maybe it is worth it.

Irish elections are nowadays followed by a lengthy period of multilateral negotiations between the parties about government formation. Any small party that is motivated, prepared and wants to enter government will play a significant – and perhaps decisive – role.