Making social science accessible

11 Feb 2020


UK-EU Relations

Irish election

After a historic general election which has helped to radically reshape the party political landscape, Irish politics is adjusting to the multiple new realities that are now taking shape.

The almost century-long duopoly of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael has been well and truly shattered after Sinn Féin’s extraordinary surge to garner the highest share of the vote (just over 24 per cent).

Fine Gael had the third worst vote in its history (after 1944 and 1948), while, for Fianna Fail, it was the second worst ever (after its post-crash defenestration in 2011). The combined vote for these long-dominant parties has now dipped well below 50%.

Had Sinn Féin run more candidates they would likely have won many more seats than any of their rivals.

So how might the result of the general election impact on Ireland’s approach to the Brexit negotiations? Brexit hardly featured in the election campaign.

In fact the exit poll conducted on election day revealed that only one per cent of voters ranked Brexit as important, in a campaign dominated by domestic issues such as housing, healthcare and quality of life.

Ireland’s capacity to respond to Brexit was demonstrated at an early stage in the Article 50 process, through the extraordinary level of cross-party support for the government’s approach to Brexit.

The government wisely put in place different mechanisms to facilitate inter-party communications, including an All Island Civic Dialogue on Brexit and a (smaller) Brexit Stakeholders Group in which all the Irish political parties participate.

These forums allowed political parties and civil society groups significant input into the evolving Irish position on Brexit, and facilitated effective communication of what the government was doing on key issues.

The contrast between the way in which the Irish and British political systems responded to Brexit could not have been more stark. All the indications are that these structures will be maintained during the next stage of the negotiations.

Some have argued that the likely departure of the Fine Gael Brexit ‘team’ – Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney and Helen McEntee – from the Brexit negotiations will hamper Ireland’s ability to defend its interests in the talks on the future relationship.

It is true that personal relationships matter in high-level EU politics, and the Fine Gael team forged a particularly close working relationship with Michel Barnier and his officials in the European Commission. Ursula von der Leyen’s recent visit to Dublin only confirmed that pattern of warmth and solidarity.

But it should be remembered that Ireland’s Brexit negotiations began under a different Fine Gael team in 2016 – Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan. The change in personnel in 2017 did nothing to alter the fundamentals in the Irish approach.

The most likely new Taoiseach, Micheál Martin has served in every Fianna Fáil led government since 1997, and as Irish foreign minister between 2008-11.

His party is aligned with President Macron’s Renew Europe in the European Parliament. He thus has both deep experience of the European Council and the connections needed to take up the Brexit baton almost immediately.

Sinn Féin’s electoral success will bring new scrutiny of its position on Brexit and its wider attitude to European integration.

Although Sinn Féin has been, for much of its history, what it terms a ‘eurocritical’ party (opposing, for example, every EU treaty referendum held in Ireland,) on Brexit it tacked quickly and unequivocally to the mainstream.

Why? Because, like other political actors, it viewed Brexit as an existential threat to the island of Ireland.

How likely is it that Sinn Féin will rock the boat, now that the remarkable solidarity shown to Ireland by the EU in the first phase of negotiations shows no signs of dissipating? That remains an unknown. But there are some worrying signs.

With Sinn Féin returning to the Dáil only one seat behind Fianna Fáil (37 versus 38) and two more than Fine Gael (35), the prospect of Sinn Féin leader, Mary Lou MacDonald becoming Taoiseach is a much more solid proposition than anybody could have dreamed of prior to the election.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, MacDonald, in an interview with BBC’s Newsnight programme, called on the EU to “take a stand” on the border question. She said that, in government, she would be “making asks of the European system in terms of long-term Irish interests and on the issue of partition”.

She went on to say that the EU should “take a stand in respect of Ireland in the same way that it supported the reunification of Germany, in the same way that it has a position on Cyprus, for example, and a positive approach to the unification of that country”.

How to interpret these remarks?

Firstly, is should be stated that in 2017 the government led by Enda Kenny secured agreement from the EU that, should Ireland vote for unification under the terms laid down by the Good Friday Agreement, there would be no need for Northern Ireland to apply for membership of the EU.

Rather, Northern Ireland would be absorbed into the EU as East Germany was 30 years ago.

McDonald seemed to go much further than this in calling for a border poll “within five years” and suggesting the EU intervenes actively on the island of Ireland in favour of Irish nationalists.

Not only does this contradict the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement and the notion of a ‘shared island’, it will surely be considered very unwelcome by the EU as the Brexit talks move into a critical phase.

Making the unique arrangements for Northern Ireland contained in the Withdrawal Agreement work will be difficult enough without Sinn Féin pouring gasoline on the fire.

The Brexit negotiations will move up a gear from early March. And, as Ronan McCrea reminds us, the stated determination of Boris Johnson’s government to diverge from EU rules means that there may be significant obstacles ahead in operationalising the Irish Protocol.

Irrespective of how coalition talks progress in the coming weeks, Ireland will rely on the deeply experienced team of officials within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and on the career diplomats in the Irish Permanent Representation to the European Union in Brussels and those in other key EU capitals.

Thus continuity rather than change is likely to characterise the Irish approach to the future relationship talks, even in the aftermath of the most dramatic election in living memory.

By John O’ Brennan, Jean Monnet Professor of European Integration and Senior Lecturer in European Politics at Maynooth University, Ireland. John is also the Director of the Maynooth Centre for European and Eurasian Studies.


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