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Elections in Ireland by April 24?

Elections in Ireland by April 24?

Seamless border at risk:  on the left, County Armagh, NI, UK; on the right, County Louth, Republic of Ireland (Google Maps)

The timing of elections in Ireland could be decided in early January

The leaders of Ireland’s main political parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, will meet in early January to decide the date of general elections. Although not required until spring 2021, snap elections could take place in January or February or closer to Easter, perhaps April 24.

Leo Varadkar‘s Fine Gael party has led the government for nine years. It has come under domestic pressure on issues like housing, health care, and the divergent paths of the economy in different regions. Ireland’s larger question is on the Brexit negotiations and managing the new border between it and the UK.

Trouble at Home

Adversaries gathered on RTE Radio 1 to debate the issues. Fianna Fáil’s Malcolm Byrne described the choice in the upcoming election between the “current, tired government and a gaggle of independents” and a “very progressive centrist government” of Fianna Fáil, Labor, Greens, and possibly Social Democrats. Pressed whether such a coalition would be viable, Byrne argued it would be “stronger and more stable” than the current government.

Byrne promised major investment in public services.  Key issues are health and housing, along with transportation, education, mental health, and the rural communities.

Fine Gael’s Catherine Noone defended the government, explaining that unemployment of 4.8 percent is historically low and that affordable housing units are being built. But independent senator Alice Mary Higgins emphasized that economic fortunes vary between the more prosperous “Dublin bubble” and the smaller towns.  Young adults are leaving rural areas, facing half-shuttered main streets and unemployment exceeding 20 and sometimes 30 percent.

Higgins said the 2020s need to be a “decade of action” on climate change, sustainable development, and a stronger role for government with insurance, housing, and energy. She and Sinn Fein senator Paul Gavan warn against the idea that the choice is between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. In their judgment the two parties are similarly tied to the vested interests of industry. The Irish election may shape up like a presidential election between two candidates, Varadkar and Fianna Fáil’s Micheal Martin, instead of among a variety of parties.

Brexit: What’s Next?

International pressures loom over these domestic issues – above all, Brexit. Varadkar will travel in January to the World Economic Forum in Davos and in March to Boston and Washington. During February and March, the EU will be determining its Brexit positions, in preparation for the EU summit in Brussels on 26-27 March.

University of Pennsylvania’s Brendan O’Leary has raised some of these questions from short-term and long-term perspectives. He discussed at American University in Washington that “Brexit” had always been a misnomer. It wasn’t the large island of Britain that was to leave the EU, but the whole of the United Kingdom – “UKexit”. But the prospect of reintroducing a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and the UK’s Northern Ireland threatens the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (aka Belfast Agreement) and raises fears of a return to the violence of the past. Proposals now put that border between Northern Ireland and Britain instead, creating a new problem for the UK. Meanwhile, the Good Friday Agreement ensures that citizens of Northern Ireland – but not of England or Scotland – will remain citizens of the European Union.

The withdrawal agreement and the terms of a future relationship – and even a timeline for deciding them – have yet to be fully determined. UK prime minister Boris Johnson has a new parliamentary majority to support him. But an agreement of anything more than just trade would require unanimity from EU members. Ominously for Johnson, long-term questions about the future of Northern Ireland and Scotland leaving the UK lie just over the horizon.



Jim Quirk

Jim Quirk teaches American and comparatiive politics at American University in Washington, D.C. He has taught at Loyola University Maryland, The Catholic University of America, and the University of Economics in Varna, Bulgaria. His favorite projects have included work with in Mexico, Russia, the Balkans, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, OSCE, IEEE, and the Open World Leadership Center. He tweets from @webQuirks