Forming a government after the February General Election was never going to be easy. That election resulted in the most fragmented Dáil in history. Political fragmentation makes government formation harder, as was to be seen in this country in 2016 and in many others before and since.
The leaderships of the two Civil War parties this week agreed on a broad basis for coalition. As they are a long way short of a majority in the Dáil, there is still a long way to go before a new government is formed. Getting buy-in from smaller parties, independents and the grassroots of both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael cannot be taken for granted. Nor can agreement on a programme for government.
The pandemic has changed things. Before the outbreak, all the political parties believed they would have money to spend over the five-year natural lifespan of the current Dáil. They had made many and various promises about their priorities in government on that basis.
The much cited - but now largely forgotten - figure of €11bn in fiscal headroom was what both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil based their generous electoral promises on. Those budgetary sums were predicated on strong and steady economic growth in each and every year to 2025.
Just two months on from the election and the economy is suffering what is almost certainly its biggest contraction on record. The shutting down of activity, in order to contain the spread of the coronavirus, has already caused record levels of joblessness.
Ireland is not alone. The world is in this slump together. On Tuesday, the International Monetary Fund became the latest high-profile organisation to take a stab at the economic effects of the pandemic. It believes the global economy is facing a much steeper decline than during the Great Recession over a decade ago. It made ominous-sounding comparisons with the Great Depression in the 1930s.
These forecasts may, however, prove too pessimistic. A breakthrough on developing a vaccine or in the treatment of coronavirus could change the game medically. A breakthrough on either front would make a full return to normality within months possible.
Even if that does not happen, economies may prove more resilient than many dismal scientists now believe. Across Europe some countries are beginning a gradual easing up of restrictions on movement and work this week, something Ireland will likely emulate soon. A new normal will not be like the old normal, but it may not be catastrophic. A depression in 2020 is by no means inevitable.
That said, an economic contraction of the size many forecasters are now pencilling in is possible, if not likely. Some sectors face extended periods of severe disruption. The outlook for the employment-intensive travel, tourism and hospitality industries is grim. A second wave of the virus, requiring another period of shutdown, would be devastating.
All of those involved in drawing up a programme for government need to be cognisant of the economic effects of the pandemic. An economy in severe contraction does not generate the resources for major new government initiatives. Any incoming government that commits to doing much more in health and housing, to take just two examples, will have to drastically cut spending in other areas or impose very large tax increases, possibly both.
The document published yesterday by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael as a basis for a government does not acknowledge some very tough choices may be facing a new administration within weeks. It promises "universal healthcare" and "housing for all". At the same time it commits to avoiding higher personal taxes. Cutting core welfare payments is ruled out.
These commitments, when taken together, seem little short of bizarre. Even if the virus can be contained and the economy comes roaring back, the notion that the State will be able to do radically more than it has done to date without raising taxes simply doesn't stake up.
A more plausible prospect is that even maintaining current spending commitments will be a challenge.
The emergency income support measures established since the onset of the pandemic will last for 12 weeks. The timeframe may be extended. But as Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe said yesterday, they will not be affordable indefinitely.
He also noted that more than a million people are on either unemployment benefits of some kind or are having their salaries subsidised by the State.
To put that in perspective, there were 2.5 million people in the workforce before the pandemic struck. We have already arrived at a situation in which every person employed in the private sector is supporting more than one working age adult who is out of work or is being paid by the State, via subsidies or in the public sector. That group is also supporting another 2.5 million children, students, pensioners and those not in the labour force at all.
In the short term, the government will borrow massively to bridge the gaps. But borrowing won't be limitless.
The speed with which a government can get into trouble is well known in this country. Consider what happened a decade ago. The government owed well under €50bn at the start of 2007. That sum almost quintupled within a few years to more than €200bn. It has stayed at that level ever since.
Ireland entered the pandemic with one of the highest levels of per person public debt in the world. That is not a good place to be when an emergency hits. Dealing with the pandemic's effects will, at the very least, add tens of billions of euro to the national debt.
Such amounts would probably be manageable. Adding as much debt as was added during the last recession, €170bn, probably won't be. The next government may have no other choice but to bring what it spends into line with what it raises in taxes.
For Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to pretend otherwise would be one thing. For them to make the commitments that they have made in their joint document this week not only fails to prepare people for potentially extremely serious fallout from the pandemic, it raises expectations as to what is achievable.
Any new government that raises expectations in this way and then has to preside over depression-era conditions and the associated budgetary implications risks a backlash from voters. All those considering joining a government should think long and hard about the commitments they make in the weeks ahead.