| 1.2°C Dublin

Explainer: What is a rotating Taoiseach, how would it work and which leaders are most likely to do a deal?


Leo Varadkar, Mary Lou McDonald and Micheal Martin

Leo Varadkar, Mary Lou McDonald and Micheal Martin

Leo Varadkar, Mary Lou McDonald and Micheal Martin

With an almost three-way split in the Dail after the election, the question of who will sit in the Taoiseach’s chair is far from solved. A job share may be the only answer – but could it ever work?

Could the biggest gig in Irish politics really be turned into a job-share scheme?

It’s certainly starting to look like a distinct possibility. Up until now, Irish coalitions have always had one party much bigger than the others, and its leader automatically became Taoiseach.

This month’s election, however, ended in a virtual three-way tie, with Fianna Fail on 38 Dail seats, Sinn Fein on 37 and Fine Gael on 35. Although some TDs are still in denial, it seems the only way to form a stable government is for two of these groups to work together.

All this is prompting speculation about the idea of a “rotating Taoiseach”, with one party leader assuming the office now and then handing it over to another half-way through the Dail’s term.

Which leaders are most likely to do such a deal?

In theory, it could be any two of Micheal Martin, Leo Varadkar and Mary Lou McDonald.Right now, it’s Fine Gael sources who are privately floating the suggestion as part of their price for entering a coalition with Fianna Fail.

In that scenario, Martin would become Taoiseach, while Varadkar takes on some kind of new role as a Brexit ambassador.

After two-and-a-half years, Martin (who’s 59) would retire and give Leo (41) back his old job.

A Fine Gael minister anonymously quoted last weekend said: “I don’t see how else it’s going to work.”

Is there any legal basis for such an arrangement?

No, it would be a strictly political understanding. Technically, whenever a Taoiseach resigns, the whole government does too.

So the parties involved might also have to agree beforehand that their new boss would reappoint exactly the same ministers as before.

Doesn’t that give a huge advantage to whichever side goes first?

Yes. If a national crisis blew up, it’s easy to imagine Taoiseach A claiming the situation is far too delicate to make a switch to Taoiseach B just yet.

Also, as soon as one group have had their turn in the Taoiseach’s office, they have much less incentive to keep the government going.

For Fianna Fail, there’s another practical difficulty – putting a time limit on Micheal Martin’s tenure would effectively mean kicking off a two-and-a-half-year leadership contest.

Is this a completely new idea in Irish politics?

No, it has been suggested several times before. When Fianna Fail Taoiseach Charles Haughey was left with no Dail majority after the 1989 general election, Fine Gael leader Alan Dukes offered to rotate positions with him in a grand coalition.

Haughey ended up doing a deal with the smaller Progressive Democrats instead, even though he and its leader Des O’Malley were widely believed to hate each other’s guts.

Three years later, Labour had a successful election and Dick Spring declared he wanted a stint in the Taoiseach’s office too

.He eventually dropped this demand in exchange for Labour getting a third of the cabinet ministries under Fianna Fail leader Albert Reynolds.

The closest we’ve ever come to a rotating Taoiseach was in 2016. Under great pressure after losing 16 seats in the election, Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny told Fianna Fail’s Micheal Martin that he was willing to accept a 50-50 power-sharing arrangement.

Martin slept on it,then proposed a “confidence and supply” deal instead – a decision that has clearly not worked out for him in the long run.

So, there’s no practical experience with the concept in Ireland at all?Actually, there is, but at a much lower level.

When Kenny formed his minority government, Independent Alliance TDs Sean Canney and Kevin ‘Boxer’Moran agreed to split a junior ministry between them.

A coin-toss resulted in Canney becoming junior minister for the Office of Public Works first and then handing over to Moran a year later.

After two years, a row erupted because nobody had expected the Government to last that long.

Moran refused to budge and Canney walked away from the Independent Alliance, complaining: “When you shake hands with a man on a deal and the deal doesn’t come through, you have to ask if the trust is gone.”

How about the experience from abroad?

It’s extremely limited. Switzerland rotates its presidency every year, but that never causes any friction because the position has so little power.

Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir were rotating prime ministers of Israel from different parties in the 1980s.

Overall, however, this kind of job share is a highly unusual practice – probably because most politicians are too suspicious of each other to try it.

What are personal relations like between our three would-be Taoisigh?

Not great. Leo Varadkar has compared Mary Lou McDonald to the French far-right leader Marine Le Pen and said Micheal Martin reminds him of a priest sinning “behind the altar” (he later apologised).

Martin thinks Varadkar is “a nasty piece of work” and claims McDonald is controlled by shadowy IRA figures in Belfast.

McDonald has called Varadkar “smarmy” and accused Martin of spinning conspiracy theories, joking: “I appear to live rent-free inside his head.”

Of course, politics is often about working with people you wouldn’t choose as a neighbour, but any partnership that emerged from this lot would immediately be dubbed apolitical “odd couple”.

Finally, how might voters feel about the country’s leadership being carved up like this?

For now, most of us seem unconvinced. An opinion poll on Wednesday showed only 27pc are in favour of the notion, 46pc against and 26pc undecided.

A rotating Taoiseach may yet be the answer to Ireland’s political stalemate, but the two Taoisigh involved will have to do a spectacularly good job of spinning it.