Coronavirus pushes Irish rivals into open government talks

DUBLIN (Reuters) – Ireland’s Fianna Fail and Fine Gael parties decided on Tuesday to open formal coalition negotiations after an inconclusive Feb. 8 election, saying they were acutely aware of the enormous challenges brought by the coronavirus outbreak.

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin has been seeking to form a government but both he and acting Prime Minister Leo Varadkar of Fine Gael have ruled out governing with Sinn Fein, the left-wing pro-Irish unity party which topped the poll and has an equal number of seats to Fianna Fail in parliament.

That means some kind of deal will be needed between the two center-right rivals and traditional dominant forces who have never formed a coalition government together.

Having sunk to 35 seats in the 160-seat house compared to the 37 each held by Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein, Fine Gael had been initially reluctant to move beyond exploratory talks but the 24 coronavirus cases identified to date led Varadkar and Martin to meet twice in the last 24 hours.

“Both leaders are acutely aware of the enormous challenges facing the country particularly with the onset of COVID-19 (coronavirus). They enter the talks as equal partners determined to develop proposals which will serve the interests of the people of Ireland,” the parties said in identical statements.

They two parties, which have swapped power at every election since emerging from opposing sides of Ireland’s 1920s civil war, will continue talks with the smaller Green Party, whose support will be needed to reach a majority in the fractured parliament.

Fianna Fail facilitated the last Fine Gael-led minority government from opposition but Martin said last week that he favored a full coalition this time.

If the parties cannot agree a government deal and maintain their steadfast opposition to Sinn Fein – chiefly over its role as the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army – a second election would be the only way to break the deadlock.

The IRA fought British rule in Northern Ireland for decades in a conflict in which some 3,600 people were killed before a 1998 peace deal.

Acting Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe of Fine Gael said earlier on Tuesday that the coronavirus spread – which the caretaker government on Monday set aside 3 billion euros to tackle – had changed the dynamic.

“We are in a situation now in which the context of these kind of discussions has very significantly and fundamentally changed and even more importantly, it’s possible this context could change for quite a while,” Donohoe told national broadcaster RTE.

Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Angus MacSwan

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