World

Ireland’s Micheal Martin to lead historic govt coalition

LONDON — Centrist politician Micheal Martin became Ireland’s prime minister Saturday, fusing two longtime rival parties into a coalition four months after an election that upended the status quo.

The deal will see Martin’s Fianna Fail govern with Fine Gael — the party of outgoing leader Leo Varadkar —and with the smaller Green Party. Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, bitter opponents whose roots lie in opposing sides of the civil war that followed Ireland’s independence from the United Kingdom, have never before formed a government together.

“I believe civil war politics ended a long time ago in our country, but today civil war politics ends in our parliament,’’ Varadkhar said. “Two great parties coming together with another great party, the Green Party, to offer what this country needs, a stable government for the betterment of our country and for the betterment of our world.’’

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The Dail, the lower house of Ireland’s parliament, elected Martin by a vote of 93-63, with three abstentions. Martin later met with President Michael D Higgins to receive his seal of office.

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Under the plan approved by the parties’ memberships, Martin became taoiseach, or prime minister. He will serve until the end of 2022 and then hand the job back to Varadkar.

The left-wing nationalist party Sinn Fein was shut out of the new government even though it won the largest share of the votes in February’s election. Despite coming out ahead, Sinn Fein was unable to assemble enough support to govern.

The two centrist parties have long shunned Sinn Fein because of its historic links to the Irish Republican Army and decades of violence in Northern Ireland. But in protracted negotiations further complicated by the COVID-19 outbreak, the two rival centrist parties opted for unity.

Sinn Fein’s president, Mary Lou McDonald, said Fianna Fail and Fine Gael conspired to exclude her party and the voices of more than half a million people who voted for her party. She called the coalition a “marriage of convenience.”

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“Faced with the prospect of losing their grip on power, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have circled the wagons,” McDonald said.

Fianna Fail holds 38 seats in the 160-seat Dail, Sinn Fein has 37 and Fine Gael has 35, while the Greens have 12 seats.

The election campaign was dominated by domestic issues. Ireland has a growing homelessness crisis, house prices that have risen faster than incomes, and a public health system that hasn’t kept up with demand.

Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the country’s problems. Underscoring the changes the virus has wrought, the Dail’s session Saturday was held at the Dublin Convention Centre, to allow for social distancing.