"Coalitions do not work, are not satisfactory and have a kind of political paralysis."

These were the words of the then taoiseach, Charles Haughey, when he spoke to RTÉ on the second day of the count following the general election of 1989.

Just three weeks later, having looked into the abyss of another election campaign and, presumably, not liking what he saw, he signed up to a coalition deal with the Progressive Democrats led by Des O'Malley.

It was a watershed moment, marking the end of Fianna Fáil's long-standing aversion to coalitions.

Before then, dating to the five party plus government of 1948, coalitions had been a case of Fianna Fáil versus the rest.

While its dominance continued long afterwards, 1989 was a marker that Fianna Fáil too would have to go fishing for partners like everybody else.

Coalitions of Chaos

The reputation that coalitions had for instability lasted well before and after those comments by Haughey.

But in more recent history, coalitions shook off their association with paralysis and chaos, and became more of a political fact of life.

Two Fianna Fáil-PD coalitions ran for full terms between 1997 to 2007, led by Bertie Ahern.

While these coalitions spanned the era of tribunals examining corruption, they also oversaw a period of unprecedented economic growth, the Northern Peace Process and Ireland's Presidency of the European Council.

When the public finances disimproved, so too did their reputation for stability. The Green Party-Fianna Fáil coalition formed in 2007, which had lasted four years, ended in tears after the arrival of the bailout Troika.

Coalition partners Des O'Malley of PDs and Fianna Fáil's Charles Haughey (pic: Rollingnews.ie)

The Labour and Fine Gael government lasted from the post-crash years of 2011 to 2016. It was a term during which Ireland exited the bailout and the public finances were restored. It also oversaw the successful marriage equality referendum, which was a big policy objective of Labour.

But ultimately, the smaller party got savaged by the electorate, who blamed Labour for its role in the implementation of austerity measures that were completely at odds with their pre-election, pre-coalition promises. 

The price of power

Labour, like the Green Party before it, learned the hard way that power comes with a price. In the last ten years, both went from their best ever to worst ever electoral performances after serving as a junior partner.

It seems to be the political law of gravity that the smaller party gets punished (although this has not always been the case, the PDs doubled their seats in 2002 after serving in coalition).

The backdrop to the coalition currently being proposed means the stakes are even higher. There is a far greater number of parties and groupings, a far more fragmented Dáil and therefore a more competitive playing field.

There is also the factor that the coalition proposed this time is far wider and mixed, meaning that the smaller party may not necessarily play the role of mudguard. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael could well end up doing that for each other.

While it is usually the role of the smaller party to try to preserve their "brand identity" while in coalition, by ensuring their policies are implemented, this time all three parties will be striving for status.

Put together, this means political competition both external and internal will be intense.

Marriage Equality Referendum was a policy objective of Labour

The new normal

While coalitions of the past have managed to reshape and remould politics, none has ever had the potential to recast politics so dramatically as the one that is currently on the cards.

It would mark not just the end of the historic Fianna Fáil - Fine Gael dichotomy that has been a defining feature of our political history.

It would also mark the start of a multi/party government system that is likely to be here to stay. The coalition that will now be voted on by party members might be hard to get our heads around.

But a multi-party government is the more organic outcome of the proportionate representation voting system which in other countries where it is practised has long since resulted in a wider number of smaller parties and multi-party governments, where policies are formed by cross-party alliances and consensus.

This trend was commented on by Micheál Martin at the launch of 'How Ireland Voted' in December 2016.

At a speech to a gathering in Trinity College, he described how Irish politics is in transition, "moving away from the Westminster model of parliament" to becoming "solidly European in terms of numbers of parties and complexity of government".

If, as now seems likely, he becomes Taoiseach in the coming days it will be as a result of the process that he foresaw in the early days of the confidence and supply deal.

It will be another watershed moment in the evolution of Irish politics.