The New Boundaries are a stark Reminder that the path to a Unity Referendum probably passes through the Assembly...
The New Boundary Commission Report yesterday for Northern Ireland mostly made for bleak reading for nationalists.
Already, there has been some detailed analysis on each constituency and how it impacts the future composition of Northern Ireland's Westminster seats.
It almost certainly ensures that the Democratic Unionists will win the most seats in the next General Election, with the exception of a black swan event occurring that no one can forecast today.
I now think that most paths to a Unity Referendum will have to go through the Northern Ireland Assembly. There are several reasons for this.
The New Boundaries, if passed, will almost cetainly act as a nationalist vote suppressant. There will be almost no competitive seats outside of Belfast and the first past the post system (FPTP) renders many votes meaningless.
However, in this tempest of constitutional turmoil, every single election result will be judged on the basis of a referendum on Northern Ireland.
Currently, the only way to secure a Unity Referendum is for the NI Secretary of State to indicate that he/she believes a majority would vote for a United Ireland in the North as set out in the Good Friday Agreement below;
“the Secretary of State shall exercise the power under paragraph 1 if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.”
The consensus around this definition seems to be that it would require nationalist parties to receive 50%+1 of the first preference votes in a Northern Assembly Election or 50%+1 of the total votes in a Westminster Election.
Unfortunately, and despite the current impasse over the Irish Language, it is hard to see how pro-Unity advocates will be able to get to 50%+1 without a Northern Ireland Assembly.
Recent polls have shown us that any future Unity Referendum will be decided by small nationalist and union voters, Alliance and Green Party voters and nonvoters at recent elections.
Naturally, it is illogical to assume that Alliance or Green party voters will switch to nationalist parties. However, the “small n” nationalist and the non-voters who would come from a nationalist background will need to be motivated and energized to vote.
The Northern Ireland Assembly elections in February 2017 proved to be a very strong result for nationalists and indicated for the first time that an energized nationalist electorate could over take the unionist vote.
There are a number of widely discussed impediments to getting the Assembly back up and running and both the DUP and Sinn Fein believe they have legitimate reasons for meaning their current stance. However, if Sinn Fein are serious about forcing a Unity Referendum they must realise that nearly ass paths to it pass through both votes for and votes in the Assembly…
On Brexit, so much has happened in the last two weeks but very little has changed. Time has passed, and May has survived without really presenting a credible plan for the Irish border.
I had believed that a Customs Union amendment would be passed by the Tory rebels in the Trade and Customs Bills that would have, at worst, safeguarded against a Hard Brexit or even tied the United Kingdom to the Customs Union after March 2019.
This would have not fully alleviated the challenged that Brexit posed to Ireland, but it would have been concrete, tangible progress.
Instead the European Research Group Conservative MPs were able to add clauses that made it illegal for Northern Ireland to have a separate customs structure to that of Britain, as well as another clause that only allows the UK to collect VAT on behalf of EU nations if they do the same for the UK.
The former makes the Irish backstop, agreed in December and formalized in March, almost impossible to implement in the case of No Deal and ups the ante on the Irish government to concede further on what constitutes a hard border.
The latter makes Theresa May’s Facilitated Customs Arrangement, one of the central tenets of here Chequer’s Plan, very likely to be rejected by the European Commission.
It’s a very worrying state of affairs and the lack of certainty continues to damage all parties involved.
I always thought that a soft Brexit would ultimately prevail but would probably have taken Theresa May down with it.
The Irish government have lobbied hard within Brussels and have take a very firm stance. This has played well with the Irish electorate and has garnered the support of all the major political parties.
However, as it becomes less certain that a soft Brexit that retains the status quo at the Irish border will emerge, Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein have begun to challenge Leo Varadkar’s affirmation that there will be no change.
Sinn Fein are a bit of a disadvantage here as their seven seats at Westminster could have been enough to swing some of the key votes mentioned above.
I believe Fianna Fail will now go on the offensive on Brexit and seek to criticize the Fine Gal position as naïve and out of touch with the political realities in Brussels and London.
There is still a small chance that a final agreement can be built from the basis of the Chequer’s proposal, though this is unlikely.
If the proposal does indeed collapse, the Irish government must hope that this becomes the moment the UK parliament finally asserts its will and decides that economics trumps party politics.
Otherwise, Leo Varadkar could fall from grace almost as fast has Theresa May has…
It was an incredible weekend in Ireland but one with very little drama. The race was run for the No side by about 11pm when the results of the RTE exit poll re-affirmed that of the Irish Poll and showed a clear majority had voted to Repeal the 8th Amendment from the Irish Constitution.
I boldly made three predictions for the 8th Amendment in April and repeated them last Friday week and now I must humbly accept I was wrong on all three counts.
Obviously, I underestimated the desire across the country for the 8th Amendment to be replaced but I also think I overestimated the division in the country and the negativity around supporting Repeal.
I thought turnout would be lower than in 2015 for Marriage Equality as I argued that;
“The Yes campaign for the Marriage Equality had a real “feel good” that allowed many to openly support the campaign even if it was not an issue that was high on their political priorities. So far, I do not see the same level of enthusiasm for the Yes campaign amongst the “non-aligned”.
By May 24th, the sheer numbers of women (and men) out on the streets campaigning for Repeal meant that more and more people were being engaged and the referendum almost became omnipotent in Irish life.
Even those who initially had wanted nothing to do with it were being asked daily what they felt and which way they were inclined to vote.
The personal stories shared on media and across social platforms also helped to normalize the debate and bring the issue much closer to home for many.
If the 8th Amendment had been an abstract law at the start of the campaign, by the end it was a much more tangible force that either hurt women or saved the lives of the unborn, depending on your final views.
Ultimately though, and despite the graphic posters, the Irish electorate related the 8th to women and the women and men of all ages, religions and political creeds mostly voted for change.
This uniformity of this belief by the end of the campaign meant that while the Yes % vote varied only Donegal actually voted No.
The #hometovote campaign also helped the Yes side and it was encouraging to see so many Irish citizens come home to Ireland to help change the laws. However, at the moment I believe this group can only be energized for referendums and will not play a role in shaping the next government.
There is no doubt the great weather also helped boost the turnout by a percentage point but given the scale of victory I don’t think even the most ardent No supporter could claim it had a decisive impact.
Most of the reviews and articles will focus on how Ireland is now finally transformed and has eradicated the last vestiges of the Catholic Church’s influence in Ireland’s political thinking. I will leave this point to more eloquent Irish (and international) writers.
What I finally want to look at is whether this result has changed the political landscape in Ireland.
It does seem highly likely that we will have an election before the end of 2019 and it may even come at some point in 2018. Have any parties or politicians benefited from their campaigning and the result.
Leo Varadkar and Simon Harris played major roles in the campaign and Harris’ appearance in one of the last televised debates was widely praised. Fine Gael currently have an unassailable lead in the polls and the result will only have strengthened this lead.
There may be a slight increase in female support for Sinn Fein away from Fianna Fail given the respective party positions on the 8th. Mary Lou McDonald played a very public role in the campaign and was a key figure on the Yes side.
However, the campaigning of Micheal Martin has bolstered his leadership over Fianna Fail. It was a brave decision to campaign against the party position taken at the last Ard Fheis and it would have ended his leadership if the campaign had failed.
The role of the Citizen’s Assembly has received a lot of attention as a means to bring more direct democracy and electorate led legislation.
It would be very interesting if a major party proposed using the Assembly for something like housing or healthcare. I do not know if this possible, but it would be very interesting to see if the Irish electorate is as far ahead of its politicians in other policies as it was on this initially.
Finally, the 8th Amendment campaign had a very all-island feel and approach with many women from the North canvassing here. In Dublin Castle Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill held up a sign “The North is Next”.
This could pose another challenge to Anglo-Irish relations as the British Government come under further pressure to legislate in Northern In the absence of an Assembly.
Unionists are skeptical of many of the movements for social progress in Northern Ireland after the alleged “Trojan horse” comments of Gerry Adams.
However, it will be a lot harder to ignore and dismiss these campaigns when they are soon led by women from leafy suburbs in Belfast and Dublin and bolstered by those returning home to campaign from the British mainland.
Ireland is changing but moving forward it looks set to increasingly change united island. Regardless of how hard or soft the final Brexit border is, the island of Ireland is united in its desire for progressive politics and policies…
The 8th will Probably be Repealed but it will be Closer than the Marriage Equality Referendum in 2015...
The campaign is heating up. I last directly wrote about the 8th Amendment referendum in August 2017. Then I warned that it would be a very close race, especially if it was run on the basis that the 8th would be replaced with legislation that allowed abortion on demand for the first twelve weeks of pregnancy.
That does seem to be the case now. It was the recommendation of the Citizen’s assembly and it seems difficult to envisage how it will not be the starting point for legislation if the 8th is indeed repealed. I warned then that the campaign may be our Brexit/Trump moment where there is a shock results that rails back against the assumption that Ireland has moved on and changed.
I do now believe it will pass on May 25th but see it being an extremely close race. There is a comfort to viewing this through the prism of the next logical step in Ireland continuing its path to becoming a truly progressive republic.
However, in many ways I think the comparisons to the Marriage Equality referendum are dangerous for the Repeal side and fail to distinguish the differences and intricacies of both the society that is being asked the question and the question itself.
The Yes campaign for the Marriage Equality had a real “feel good” that allowed many to openly support the campaign even if it was not an issue that was high on their political priorities.
So far, I do not see the same level of enthusiasm for the Yes campaign amongst the “non-aligned”.
The reason for this may be that so far, the No side have been more successful in framing the referendum around “abortion” than the Yes side have been in framing it around “bodily autonomy” and “freedom of choice”.
There are two factors that make the “No” side’s task easier here. The No side got its posters up earlier and many of the posters contain stark warnings about what they believe repealing the 8th means.
Furthermore, the wider phenomenon of a growing effectiveness of short, simplistic political messages in recent times, arguably fueled by the rise in social media platforms like Twitter, means the message of abortion is received and processed a lot easier than “bodily autonomy”.
That said, the Yes campaign is still ahead in every poll so far which is the clearest indicator that it will pass. The most recent poll from the Irish Times this week showed a slight drop in support for Yes at 47%, with No at 28%, “Undecided” at 20% and “Don’t Know” at 4%.
The results were also framed as Yes at 63% and No at 37% with others excluded. This is a much more dangerous way of analyzing the results for those who are in favour of Repeal as Irish voters in past referendums have shown a high aversion to change when there is uncertainty around what that change will be.
Finally, it’s time for some updated predictions based on where we stand today. There may be changes in the run up to the Referendum, but this is probably the final predictions I will make;
Yes to pass with a vote of 52% to 57% - a much smaller margin of victory than the 62% Yes received in the Marriage Equality referendum.
Turnout out to be lower than 55% for the reasons illustrated above
5+ Constituencies to Vote No versus only Roscommon in the Marriage Equality referendum.
I was genuinely annoyed yesterday with the decision of the Democratic Unionist Party to end the talks on reforming a Northern Ireland Assembly and their decision to request the British Government to restore Direct Rule in Northern Ireland. I thought it was worth trying to look at this solely from the perspective of the DUP and not from where I stand as a liberal and Irish nationalist.
It had seemed since last Friday that a deal was very close and that a compromise over a standalone Irish Language Act had been agreed (three Acts; Irish, Ulster-Scots and Culture under an umbrella Act).
However, plenty of unionist politicians and political commentators came out quite vehemently against this and the consensus is that this may have spooked Foster and her party leaders.
I think there may be more to it than this. A new Northern Ireland Assembly deal required compromise from both sides. It did involve potential acquiescence by the DUP on an Irish Language Act and also potentially on Marriage Equality.
Why does the DUP need to compromise though? They have the balance of power at Westminster with their ten seats so when they call for Direct Rule they will have an influence on the governing of Northern Ireland.
It is actually even more emphatic than this when we look closer at the 2017 General Election results. The DUP took ten of eighteen seats and with Sinn Fein abstaining from Westminster it leaves only one non-DUP MP from Northern Ireland, Lady Hermon in North Down.
I would be slightly concerned though if I was Arlene Foster. It now appears as if the ten MPs are the future of the party, particularly in the continued absence of an Assembly.
The RHI scandal still looms over the head of Foster (this was the original reason for the Assembly collapsing in the first place) and if the Inquiry leads a damning conclusion, she may even be quietly removed with a number of potential leaders from the MP pool.
Without an Assembly there will be no Irish Language Act or Marriage Equality Act in Northern Ireland, why would the Tories risk either when they need the support of the DUP.
Karen Bradley, the relatively new Northern Ireland secretary recently compared the issue of Marriage Equality to broadband, deeming both devolved issues;
“It will be a matter for the elected politicians in Northern Ireland to make a decision about equal marriage,” ... “That’s not for me to impose, in the same way it’s not for me to impose the way that super-fast broadband is rolled out across the country.”
If the DUP cross the Rubicon and decide that the Northern Ireland Assembly is no longer needed (for now they have just suggested that a return won’t be happening in the short to midterm) they will leave nationalists without any representation in a local or British parliament.
There is very little possibility of Sinn Fein taking their seats at Westminster, even if their continued absence hurts their constituents. Equally, Sinn Fein are in such a position of dominance over their main nationalist rival, the SDLP, that there isn’t much possibility of SDLP getting any seats at the next Westminster election.
The Good Friday Agreement does call for the Republic of Ireland to have a role in overseeing the implementation of the agreement but it is hard to see how this could become joint authority or joint governance.
Unless the Irish government makes some concrete form of joint rule a red line for approving the UK’s Brexit Deal (which is highly unlikely) than it leaves nationalists almost completely out in the cold. The Irish government will most likely focus on the border and even this will require a lot of work and compromise with the British government, leaving little leverage for pushing for a more direct role in managing NI affairs.
This is probably not the consensus view of the next few years and there is every chance that a deal will still be agreed at some point in 2018.
There is every chance that this could lead to a massive backlash against the DUP in the next Westminster election as many citizens place the blame on the lack of progress, economic or social, in the state.
Alternatively, many potential voters may be so disillusioned by the time the next election rolls around that the opposition parties may not be able to rally a large turnout. A low turnout would almost certainly favour the DUP.
In my view, this success of the DUP’s decision to effectively shut down Stormont for the foreseeable future will be determined by when the next UK General election is called. If it is as late as 2022 (as the bookies currently believe) then they are effectively the only voice in Northern Ireland politics with actual power. The latest date for the next election is May 2022, that’s a staggering fifty one months of dominance.
However, if the UK govt falls in the short to midterm, which may be possible given the internal Tory turmoil, the DUP may lose some seats and not hold the Westminster majority after the election.
I haven’t touched upon Brexit or demographics in this article (I covered it here quite recently) as this has been extensively covered and wanted to try and understand the DUP’s mentality and decision making.
They are often lampooned by the media and their strategic direction and intelligence questioned but when I took a cold, analytical look at where both major parties stand, the DUP seem to be in a much stronger position without Stormont…
2017 was one of the most exciting year ends for politics in the Republic in recent memory. In Late November, the fallout from the Sergeant McCabe drama reached its crescendo which led to an incredible game of brinkmanship between Leo Varadkar and Michael Martin. Initially, Fianna Fail went for blood and when Leo publicly backed Frances Fitzgerald it seemed the government’s confidence and supply was teetering on the edge of a political precipice.
An election at that time would have been very, very tight and could have gone either way. Michael Martin had publicly announced that he would not enter coalition with Sinn Fein but I think if the numbers had been right at that time, it could well have happened.
I think it was ultimately fortunate for Fine Gael that two further incriminatory emails were found that realistically made Frances Fitzgerald’s position untenable. While Fine Gael maintained their public position that her resignation was regrettable and unfair, I’m sure there were some sighs of relief around Fine Gael HQ. In Leo’s words;
“So, it is with deep regret that I have accepted her resignation. It is my strong view that a good woman is leaving office without getting a full and fair hearing.”
As I wrote about then, the Brexit talks could not have come at a better time for Fine Gael, in the direct aftermath of the aforementioned scandal. The unequivocal backing given to the Irish government allowed Leo Varadkar to be bullish and stand firm on the long held Irish positions. It played very well with the Irish public and was a change from the cautious approach of Enda Kenny who, at times, has been perceived as a lap dog of the European leaders.
By the time an agreement was finally reached that accommodated all sides and allowed the talks to proceed to Phase Two, Fine Gael had already enjoyed a boost in popularity which was reflected in the polls at the time. They reached 36% in an Ipsos MRBI/Irish Times, their highest in over two years. It definitely allowed Fine Gael to finish the year on a high and gave the opposition parties plenty of food for thought.
So far in 2018, the public’s focus has shifted to more local issues with healthcare and housing back on the agenda. In these areas, Fina Gael have not performed as well as could be expected and it offers opportunities for both Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein to challenge current government policies and offer alternatives. As always, in Fianna Fail’s case it is a little more challenging as they are propping up the government through the C&S agreement.
Michael Martin has done a decent job over the last eighteen months of differentiating Fianna Fail’s position from those of Fine Gael, despite being complicit in any piece of legislation that has been passed. I have mentioned already that it was very difficult to do so in Brexit talks as the public were quite united behind Leo Varadkar, here even Sinn Fein’s criticism of the government approach was muted. When the talks resume in March, Fianna Fail will again struggle for relevancy.
The Eight Amendment debate has really captured the media’s attention currently. It has probably overtaken healthcare and housing for many as the key issue facing the parties today. While no referendum has currently been set, the debate about what is on the ballot paper and who supports what is already raging.
Sinn Fein as a party have come out quite strongly for a replace motion that, at the very least, makes changes to the current wording and offers more rights to women. There have been dissidents to this policy, most notably Peader Tiobin in Meath West.
Fine Gael TD’s have mostly come out in favour of some sort of repeal or replace motion. Interestingly, Varadkar has not publicly stated his position yet. It would be a political bombshell if he came out in favour of keeping the Eight amendment and could even put his position as party leader in doubt. I believe he will offer a very nuanced opinion soon, that gives him enough room to manoeuvre without totally alienating the ardent repealers in his party, with the likes of Kate O’Connell making passionate speeches against it recently with memorable quotes like;
“It is when we have been at our most Catholic in Ireland that we have been at our least Christian,….Irish women were quite literally enslaved in an act of church and State collusion that can be honestly characterised as nothing other than sexual apartheid,…….Their babies were sold like puppies to foreign homes or enslaved in industrial schools to be preyed upon by those in power wielding authority”
However, Fianna Fail are the most intriguing party to analyse on this issue. At the Ard Fheis last October, the party came out quite strongly against repealing the Eight Amendment. With estimates of the no repeal motion being passed by a ratio of 5/6 to 1, it is incredible that Michael Martin has now publicly backed repealing the Eight and going as far as to back abortion on demand for the first twelve weeks of pregnancy.
The two favourites to be the next Fianna Fail leader, Michael McGrath and Dara Calleary, have both openly opposed Michal Martin’s stance on this. I think Michal Martin is greatly concerned about being perceived as the socially conservative party in Irish politics.
It would open Fianna Fail to attack on both flanks from 1) fiscally conservative but socially liberal voters who may swing to Fine Gael and 2) socially liberal, nationalist voters who now see Sinn Fein as a better fit for their views.
I think it’s fair to say that, at the very least, Michael Martin has staked his political future on the Eight being repealed or replaced. It this isn’t the case the knives may come immediately. Even if it passes though, his authority has now been publicly questioned and unless Fianna Fail manage to close the gap to Fine Gael by the end of the year I can see a leadership challenge emerge.
Mary Lou McDonald is now the President-Elect of Sinn Fein. Opinions vary on whether Sinn Fein see an immediate boost in the polls from this. I think it will take time, as plenty of media outlets and political commentators have already implied that this is only a superficial change.
Mary Lou McDonald needs a catalyst to really show that Sinn Fein is her party now. An issue that she can directly lead and take on the government over. She nearly had it over the Frances Fitzgerald issue, before Michael Martin shrewdly made it his own.
She is an excellent debater and she is able to hold her own in most Dail exchanges. I see Fine Gael as the leading party over the next eighteen months at least. The key challenge for Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein is to convince the public that they are the viable alternative. Currently, Fianna Fail hold a considerable lead in the polls (see latest from January 21st below) but may struggle on a whole host of issues as previously discussed.
Finally, on a 2018 election I think the chances of this happening have greatly receded since December. This is reflected in betting odds where it has dropped from 1/8 to 4/7. Fianna Fail will not call an election while they are behind in the polls. Equally, Fine Gael do not need to and will see 2018 as an opportunity to enhance their reputation on housing (note the newly announced first buyer’s scheme) as well as benefitting from any available good will on the Eight Referendum and Brexit outcomes that appear favourable to Ireland.
2018 will be a very interesting year and the dynamics between all three main parties will evolve fluidly over different issues. Fine Gael do look slightly unassailable currently in terms of most seats in a General Election. That being said, they were on their almost on their knees as recently as November and may find themselves sin a similar position again if the key events of 2018 do not go their way. An increasingly desperate Michael Martin and a newly emboldened Mary Lou McDonald will be waiting in the wings for any possible path to power…
I started A Bit Left and A Bit Lost in June 2017. Initially, it was something to do while I moved countries and searched for a job. A way to combine my interest in politics and current affairs with that little spark for writing I think I've always had but rarely used.
It's been a great seven months. I've written around thirty articles and even got a few published on Slugger O' Toole. However, I love having everything I write on my own medium, so I can link back to previous articles and develop some themes and trends. These trends can evolve over time or dissipate in numerous ways. From key characters stepping aside or a catalyst for change.
The Political Punts page allows me to make "hard" predictions on a certain date and then look back and either bask in a little self congratulation or try to identify what I incorrectly assumed or based the bet on.
These 2018 predictions are a mix of themes and potential events. I always place at least a little wager on the political punts so finding markets online to match my views and predictions can be tricky. For these, they are more general predictions and most touch on topics I have covered in 2017.
Trump to continue his Erratic Foreign Policy but No War: The United States is in disarray under Donald Trump. Trump has already had spats with numerous leaders and caused widespread outrage with his decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. He has shown little ability to maintain a coherent foreign policy. Trump is easily distracted by individual events and I expect this to continue. I think, in time, 2017 will be seen as a year of regression for the US but for now the buoyant global economy is giving Trump some breathing space.
The Global Bull Market Run to Continue, Just About...: 2017 has been a great year for the global economy and stick markets. We are definitely getting close to the peak and there will eventually be a market correction but there should just about be enough fuel left for 2018 to be another positive year. If this is the case, I will probably be making a very different 2019 prediction.
China to Continue its Steady, Low-Key Ascent to Global Hegemony: It was a good year for China and its leader Xi Jinping. He managed to consolidate his hold on power, prevented Trump from delivering on his pre-election threats on trade and China avoided any hard economic landing, while extending its global diplomatic and economic reach. I expect 2018 to be a similar year and would be surprised if there are any major negative stories.
Tories to Survive and Brexit is Happening: 2018 will be a tough year for the United Kingdom. Brexit is not going to be reversed with the current government (or a Labour alternative). The current Tory Government will probably survive but continue to stutter along. It is hard to see how the UK will be in a better state this time next year than now. However, politics in the UK has been so shocking since the Scottish Independence referendum was first called and there is every chance that something equally surprising and unexpected will happen in 2018.
Fine Gael to increase seats lead over Fianna Fail in any Irish General Election: The economic headline figures will continue to impress and this will be enough for many to approve of Leo Varadkar and Fine Gael. Furthermore, the "Brexit talks bounce" will continue to help Fine Gael and paralyse Fianna Fail. 2018 should be a good year for Fine Gael and Leo Varadkar.
The Irish Abortion Referendum Campaign to be Brutal: I think this will be a very nasty, divisive election. Much more similar to the last US Presidential election or the Brexit Referendum than the Marriage Equality Referendum. It is a much more partisan topic than marriage equality, which I believe the average Irish voter ultimately viewed as a matter of common decency and fairness. It should pass but if the odds go above 5 or 6/1 I may take a small speculative punt on it not passing.
Iran to get even closer to Russia/China and avoid a Revolution: The news has been filled with coverage of the current unrest in Iran recently. I don't think this will reach the levels of 2009 and the Green Revolution. Iran will continue to forge deeper links with Russia and China as Trump will make occasional threats against Iran, mainly at the best of Benjamin Netanyahu and the American pro-Israel lobby.
Thank you for reading this year. Keep following and have a happy and healthy 2018!
I recently wrote about how the Brexit deadlock was a perfectly destructive equilibrium of opposing aims and forces. The de facto vetoes held by the Irish Government on one side and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on the other meant no viable solution was available that satisfied both sides. This led me to believe that heads would roll as one side was simply cast aside.
I was wrong on this for now. All sides were able to come to an agreement that allowed the talks to progress to the second phase, which will focus on trade. The impasse was broken mostly by vague language that was deemed acceptable by everyone as it was possible for a broad spectrum of interpretations of what the text actually meant.
“Regulatory alignment” was perceived as less constricting to the DUP than “no convergence” between the North and South that led them to effectively veto the agreement that had been decided on Monday last. For most commentators the second iteration, which was agreed last Friday is not much more favourable to the DUP’s stated goals. They have signed off on a document that commits the UK to full alignment between the North and South unless there are prior, agreed solutions.
“In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom committed to maintaining full alignment with those rules of the internal market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy, and the protection of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement. In this context, implementation and oversight mechanisms for the specific arrangements to be found will be established to safeguard the integrity of the internal market.”
The breakthrough was greeted with guarded optimism by most sides, with the Irish government and Theresa May’s camps being the most vocal and ebullient. I wanted to wait until the weekend had passed to assess the fallout.
Furthermore, for Theresa May to navigate the talks and deliver a final solution, she needs to keep the hard right, anti-EU faction of her party onside. The uniformity of the message delivered by members of her party over the weekend was a crucial acid test of whether she had been able to get all sides onboard. Cracks that appear already will possibly move to chasms as the trade talks will evolve from aims and goals to facts, laws and treaties.
David Davis spoke on the Andrew Marr show yesterday and appeared bullish on the United Kingdom’s trade deal prospects, while playing down the commitments agreed in Phase 1. Davis claimed the divorce settlement will only be paid if a deal is agreed and that the text agreed was more a statement than a concrete agreement;
"We want to protect the peace process and we also want to protect Ireland from the impact of Brexit for them. This was a statement of intent more than anything else.”
Michael Gove, the Environment Minister and prominent Brexiteer, went a step further when he stated;
“If the British people dislike the arrangement that we have negotiated with the EU, the agreement will allow a future government to diverge.”
To me, this means that if the Tories win the next election, they can renege on many of their commitments and start over. While he public supported May’s efforts, this undoubtedly undermines her authority and negotiating position.
This has sparked alarm bells in Ireland and Europe and backlash from members of Labour and the Scottish National Party.
The DUP response has already been quite toxic and has done the most to poison relations between North and South. Sammy Wilson made some deplorable comments about cowboys and Indians in the past few weeks. Arlene Foster grudgingly approved the deal with the caveat that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. However, the most insidious comments came from Ian Paisley Junior who claimed the DUP “had done over” the Irish Government and Leo Vardker. This is almost Trump-esque language that will harden Irish resolve as well as cause consternation among many in London.
I won’t be writing about Brexit again until 2018, though there may be further breakthroughs and crucial details that emerge at the meeting of European leaders next week. For now, talks have progressed without real progress and I think all sides will be happy to park the key issues until the New Year. For 2017, disaster has been averted and jobs have been retained.
This agreement was akin so a small release of energy that has resolved the threat of a political earthquake in the very short term. Unfortunately, the underlying fundamentals have not changed and it is still my view that the Irish border is a catch 22 position that can’t be resolved with the current agreement. I expect the Spring to be a very turbulent time for Brexit and political volatility to greatly increase. That’s for later though, to paraphrase the Chinese proverb, “may we live in interesting times, but let’s enjoy Christmas first…”
The Symmetrical Power of the Irish Government and DUP will probably lead to a Political Earthquake…
“Earthquakes are usually caused when rock underground suddenly breaks along a fault. This sudden release of energy causes the seismic waves that make the ground shake. When two blocks of rock or two plates are rubbing against each other, they stick a little. ... When the rocks break, the earthquake occurs.”
Yesterday was a disaster for North-South relations in Ireland. The DUP scuppered a deal that had been agreed by all sides AKA the Irish Government, the Tory Government (granted not the DUP, whose ten seats prop them up) and the European side.
By most accounts it appears that Theresa May had verbally agreed to a deal that committed Northern Ireland to “regulatory alignment” with the Republic and the European Union without consulting the DUP beforehand.
This was either a case of misplaced confidence or extreme naivete. We are now in a position where two opposing forces are pushing against each other in a state of equilibrium (aka stalemate in the negotiations). Unfortunately, the window for an agreement to be reached that appeases both sides has almost completely passed.
This equilibrium cannot last indefinitely. It is increasingly likely that at least one side will be forced under and burnt and the ensuing release of energy and emotions will have devastating implications for those involved.
At this stage, the most likely victim of this political earthquake is the British Government. Theresa May’s authority has been consistently undermined and her position looks untenable. Having said that, it’s looked untenable for months and nothing has dislodged her yet.
Nobody across the political spectrum has so far proposed a solution that is acceptable to all parties. I would hazard a guess and say that nobody so far has guessed correctly what will happen when either the Irish Govt or the DUP are let down or the talks collapse completely.
If Brexit has taught me one thing, it’s that logical outcomes rarely happen when this level of emotion is invested by all sides. As I have stated already, the British Government do look the most vulnerable to this potential, political rupture. However, the potential backlash could take down Leo Varadkar, Arlene Foster or even threaten the stability of the United Kingdom.
We are close to an earthquake that will be have devastating but unforeseen circumstances. Leadership and maturity must now be shown by all sides if we are to avoid this…
The last week has seen many spats and comments from Irish, British and European politicians on Brexit, trade and the Irish Border question. Theresa May travels to Brussels for a crunch meeting with Jean Claude Juncker tomorrow so negotiations and emotions should reach fever pitch over the next two weeks, after the relative phoney war of the Autumn.
The dynamics between parties and individuals is complex, fluid and dynamic. I’ve tried to summarize the position some of the groups involved below in terms of what they really want to happen in the coming weeks, red lines and relative power. It’s a contentious topic and certainly up for debate so feel free to comment or correct below;
Theresa May and the mainstream Conservatives;
2017 has been her annus horribilis. She started the year in a position of relative strength with Labour in disarray and massively trailing in the polls. Her Lancashire speech was met with muted praise by many in the British media. However, it’s all been downhill since including losing her majority in the General Election in June. This led to a supply and confidence agreement with the DUP which has massively impacted her negotiating leverage since.
At this point she would settle for concluding Phase 1 without her government collapsing or a heave from the Brexiteer side of the party led by Boris Johnson, Michael Gove or Jacob Rees-Mogg. To avoid this, she’ll have to do enough to satisfy both which will be difficult. The explicit backing of the Irish veto by Donald Tusk last week was a further blow and it will be almost impossible to keep everyone happy.
Pro – Brexit Conservatives;
While there is not a uniform position held by all those who favoured Brexit there are some clear demands that resonate with most of these members. They are already massively dismayed by the approximate 50 billion pound divorce bill. The fact that there wasn’t a heave against Theresa May then shows the fear they have now that it could lead to an election. They are not as pushed on what happens to the Irish border as long as progress to the next round of talks isn’t delayed further. The No Deal threat/demand has been mentioned but is still seen as the nuclear option. To be honest, they haven’t been able to impose their aims as much as I had feared back in July.
The Irish Government;
The Irish Government is in a position of strength since the unequivocal backing of Donald Tusk and the European Union last Friday. Their position seemed to be quite clear in that they would veto progress to the next round unless they have concrete guarantees from the British government that there would be no physical infrastructure on the Irish border. Their ultimate desire is that the UK remains in the Single Market. This now seems impossible but there is the potential that Northern Ireland will become a special designated zone.
Taking a hard-line publicly will also win votes. I think the Irish people have been quite riled up over the last few weeks. On the domestic front, there is no potential to be heavily criticised for being aggressive, this position does not to be defended on two fronts. Fine Gael do need a good PR story after what happened with Frances Fitzgerald and the upped ante of these talks is a welcome distraction as I wrote here.
Democratic Unionist Party;
Their position is possibly the most complex. Like the Irish government, they also want no physical infrastructure on the Irish border. They realize that this could potentially lead to backlash from the Nationalist community that could energize their voting habits and increase the nationalist turnout at Westminster elections, as well as any future Northern Ireland Assembly elections.
However, they have also said that any concessions or proposals by the Conservative party that leads divergence between the British mainland and Northern Ireland would force them to end the supply and confidence agreement. On paper, this also gives them a veto. In reality, if they did this Labour are currently polling ahead and a Jeremy Corbyn led Labour government would be a disaster for the DUP, on top of them losing their kingmaker position.
Jeremy Corbyn and Labour;
This is a very challenging position to describe and one really open for debate. Corbyn was heavily criticised for not campaigning hard enough for the UK to remain in the European Union prior to the Brexit referendum. For most of his political career, her has been a euro sceptic. I believe the government collapsing is their main aim today. The problem for them, is that they have no real way of making this happen. This is not to say that the government will not fall, I have outlined above how it could occur. If they did suddenly win a snap election, I don’t think they would try and reverse Brexit but would look for the softest version of Brexit possible, though probably falling short of complete free movement of people and goods.
The European Union;
I think at this stage they are quite happy with how things have proceeded. The initial shock and horror at the disarray of the British negotiating team has given way to a realisation that they hold most of the aces and are negotiating from a position of relative power. I was surprised at the level of backing given to Ireland on Friday though I suspect some of this was posturing and behind closed doors Leo Varadkar was encouraged to avoid using his veto. Their red line is that the United Kingdom will not have the same level of access to the single market with the free, uninhibited movement of people throughout the European Union.
I think Sinn Fein’s position is worth analysing. With the Northern Ireland assembly not currently sitting, Sinn Fein are not directly involved in negotiations. That being said, they represent the nationalist community in Northern Ireland as expressed through both the Westminster and previous Northern Ireland Assembly elections. I don’t think they would like to see Brexit reversed tomorrow. Brexit has helped propel talks of a United Ireland in the mainstream conscious of the Irish people in way I haven’t seen in my (admittedly relatively short) lifetime.
Equally, I do not believe they would want a disastrous Brexit either as they may suffer a backlash over not going back into government in the North. To be fair they have been outright in their calls for Northern Ireland to remain in the European Union from day one. This is unlikely but divergences between the British mainland and Northern Ireland would be publicly and privately welcomed, particularly if the DUP did follow through on their threat to pull down the government.
Martin won, Leo lost but he can reclaim some face with Brexit talks before the inevitable Spring election...
What a week. Irish politics is often drab, parochial and all too predictable. We aren’t often blessed with great politicians who can command the attention of the world or political events that have a global reach. For every Parnell, there is a Pat Rabbitte and most of our political crises end with a shrug of shoulders, a nudge and a wink or in extreme cases, a never-ending tribunal that produces non-criminal results years after people have stopped caring…
The last week has been different. We had high drama that captured the attention not only of the Irish public but of the global media. It was a perfect storm of brinkmanship between Ireland’s two most powerful politicians that brought the government to the edge of collapse. It also contained a human element in the abhorrent treatment of a good man, Maurice McCabe.
Too often, the issues that can divide politicians and governments are over theoretical or abstract points that seem to be part of a different, political universe. However, the allegation that a respected Minister, Frances Fitzgerald, allowed a whistle-blower to be wrongfully labelled a paedophile brought out anger and disgust in the Irish electorate.
To briefly summarise, the allegations of wrongdoing have floated around for quite a while over Frances Fitzgerald. It came to a head last Thursday when Sinn Fein tabled a motion of no confidence in the Dail after a barrage of criticism by Mary Lou McDonald. Michael Martin quickly realised that that there was anger within his own party over the behaviour of Mrs Fitzgerald and that he could not allow Sinn Fein to be the main opposition in this crisis. So, on Friday morning last Fianna Fail lodged their own motion of no confidence to be tabled this Tuesday. The Soldiers of Destiny had crossed the Rubicon and the nation held its breath.
The onus was initially put straight back on Leo Varadkar. Many believed he would cast Frances Fitzgerald aside as the motion passing would lead to a General Election right before Christmas. He didn’t, in fact he backed her to the hilt. It was a string and decisive counter attack that many labelled as Leo calling Martin’s bluff. Many Fine Gael TDs came out with vehement defences of Mrs Fitzgerald and claimed that Fianna Fail were playing political games at a crucial period of Brexit negotiations and that the Charleton Tribunal should be allowed to do its job, starting in January.
There were behind the scenes meetings over the weekend between the leaders and documents were exchanged. On Monday morning both sides held the same line and it looked like Michael Martin was going to force an election that he wouldn’t win. His future as leader was genuinely on the line with murmurs of discontent.
Then on final flop two more damaging emails emerged Monday evening. Fianna Fail finally had a winning hand. Frances Fitzgerald was finished and now Leo had to act to avert a backlash from the public. He took his time and looked indecisive but eventually on Tuesday morning Frances Fitzgerald resigned and the motion was withdrawn.
Varadkar has lost a lot of political capital. Many political pundits are incredulous as to why he continued to publicly back her after he became aware of the further emails on Saturday morning. It strikes of political naivety and a lack of experience.
I’m not his biggest fan but I think he can easily recover. He is fortunate enough that almost immediately after this debacle, the focus is right back on Brexit talks. He, along with Simon Coveney (the Minister for Foreign Affairs) have been firm but fair in holding the Irish position on vetoing progress to the next stage without concrete proposal on the Irish border question.
He benefits from the fact that the public and all the major parties agree on this. There is no potential for an attack at home as long as he holds strong. If he continues to do so and is able to gain favourable concessions from the British government (they have already acquiesced to the financial demands of the EU this week) Frances Fitzgerald and Maurice McCabe will be yesterday’s problem.
Michael Martin clearly won a great battle this week. However, it didn’t significantly enhance Fianna Fail’s political strength. They continue to prop up Fine Gael while having to defend against attack from Sinn Fein and their new leader, Mary Lou McDonald. The Supply and Confidence agreement looks damaged beyond repair. The onus is now on either Michael or Leo to call a Spring election but Fianna Fail are yet to move ahead of Fine Gael in poling (the next poll will be very, very interesting) and as Fianna Fail have ruled out a coalition with Sinn Fein, their political mobility is limited.
In summary, this was a bad week for Leo and Fine Gael but they have a lot more flexibility and potential upside in the next few weeks. Hannibal crushed the Roman Army at the Battle of Cannae and looked to be about to conquer Rome. However, he didn’t press his advantage and this eventually allowed the Romans to consolidate their position and strike back. Fianna Fail are a little reminiscent of that post victory Carthage army wandering around Italy without a clear plan. Unless Fine Gael completely collapse on the border or Mick Wallace/The Charleton Tribunal deliver further bombshells in the coming weeks this crisis may prove to be a footnote when the almost inevitable Spring election rolls around…
It is hard to remember a Taoiseach who puts more effort into his public image than Leo Varadkar. He is part of a breed of new politician who put their image above everything else. Wearing a symbol as divisive as the poppy is a move that was certain to temporarily shift the political discourse away from the key issues, like the current deficiencies in our health services and the homelessness crisis.
This is not lost on Fine Gael. Unfortunately, there has been little tangible progress in the two areas mentioned above. Wearing the Poppy has allowed Varadkar to take the heat off these two issues for a few days.
Furthermore, it was a move that was always going to play well with his political base. This is not to suggest that every Fine Gael supporter is a Poppy wearing anglophile, that’s a very tired and lazy cliché. However, many of the first people to comment on the topic were indignant Sinn Fein supporters. The anger at seeing the Taoiseach in a poppy led to a flurry of calls and emails. Annoying Sinn Fein supporters and Party members will, at least secretly, please plenty of Fine Gael followers.
What I do not want to write about is the appropriateness of the wearing of the poppy by our Taoiseach. There have been numerous articles over the last decade about the poppy, about how many Irishmen fought in the belief that Home Rule would come as a reward for fighting and alternatively about how Brutal and unjust the British Army have been in the past.
There will be further publicity stunts as long as our incumbent Taoiseach sits in office. They will frequently be used to distract the electorate from the issues that matter to the majority on a daily basis. What we must do is see through these smokescreens and continue to demand more from our elected government.
Getting into an online debate about the Poppy, no matter how strong your views on the topic are will not move this country forward. Forget Varadkar’s Poppy, let’s focus on the issues that matter until we have a Republic that we are proud of…
Leo Varadkar needs to stand up to the Franco-German axis for Ireland and the small nations of the European Union
*First appeared here on Slugger O' Toole
Since it became clear that Angela Merkel would be re-elected as German Chancellor, there has been a re-focused approach to tax harmonisation within the European Union, driven mostly by Emmanuel Macron's France, along with Germany. This has been covered by numerous media outlets and there is little I can add to the conversation. The argument is that France and Germany who are now both stable and revitalised after momentous national elections, will look to readjust the balance of Europe. It was a major talking point a few years ago and then seemed to die down with numerous crises occurring, like the EU sovereign debt crisis, followed by Brexit.
In fact, it looked like Brexit would deter these efforts for a number of years at the very least. However, the certainty of the EU position in the face of a disorganized and often contradictory UK position has probably alleviated some of the fear in Brussels that the EU will suffer more than the UK from Brexit. The buoyant economic situation across Europe has also added to this new-found sense of confidence. This is a welcome change from the near fatalism that pervaded much of the mainstream media concerning the European Project over the last number of years. Unfortunately for Ireland, this has exacerbated the return to the tackling the major thorn at the side of the two most powerful EU economies; the variance in corporation tax that has attracted a disproportionate amount of foreign direct investment to certain peripheral EU states.
Ireland is undoubtedly the most high-profile example of a country benefitting from a lower than average corporate tax rate in the EU. It isn’t the only nation though, with some of the so called peripheral nations also attracting companies in this way. These include Cyprus and Malta amongst others. Many of these have suffered in the past from poverty, emigration and elevated levels of unemployment, A story all too familiar to many of our own older generations. The access to the European Union has offered these countries the chance to invigorate their economies, some experiencing growth unheard of in the recent past.
Unfortunately for the small nations, now that Germany and France (with the support of some of the other large nations) have realised that the rules are not in their favour they have decided that they want to play a different game. The latest utterings coming from Paris and Berlin are that the Eurozone needs a finance minister, along with a uniform corporate tax rate.
The Irish government needs to be firm and stand up for itself here, along with the other smaller nations. Allegedly, we have a lot of goodwill over the unique challenges we face with Brexit. Surely, we can argue, this is not the time for such drastic changes to the daily functions of the EU. Furthermore, these actions would boost the dissenters against the European Union’s creeping power. Many of these protestors have fuelled far right movements in European countries in recent years.
Ireland needs to say this isn’t the time and tell Europe that they will use any veto powers available to them to block this. Ireland can then work with the other nations who are more discreetly opposed to a single tax rate to organise a bloc of countries. Ireland is one of the most pro-European nations. Varadkar will need to effectively vocalise that there is difference between being Eurosceptic and believing that these potential steps are a bridge too far.
A lot of Varadkar’s appeal to his supports revolves around his frank and outspoken method of communicating. He is seen as someone who isn’t afraid to mince his words. This is often seen in sharp contrast to his predecessor, Enda Kenny. It’s hard to forget the image of Nicolas Sarkozy rubbing his head, this was not the action of someone speaking to their equal.
Varadkar has been a lot more forthright with his criticism of the British government for their approach thus far to Brexit. It would be a lot more of a challenge to be as outspoken against tax harmonisation. However, this does not mean it would be prudent to stay silent. Ireland needs to stay strong on this issue. We cannot back down and allow ourselves to be walked over and dismissed. Let’s hope we have a leader who will fight for Ireland and maybe we can be an inspiration for other nations struggling to find their voice in Brussels.
*First appeared here on Slugger O' Toole
A lot of eyes in Ireland and Britain will be focused on Catalonia in the upcoming weeks. The vote taking place on October 1st will be an acid test for the integrity of Spain and the aspirations of independence for a number of regions across the European Union.
The referendum was first called for in June 2017 and was formally approved by the Catalan Parliament on the 6th of September. Almost immediately, the Spanish Constitutional Court claimed the referendum was non-binding, stating the Spanish Constitution does not allow Spanish Regions to hold Independence votes.
This should then be a straightforward matter. If the vote is null and void, it doesn’t make sense for it to take place. In 2014, in Catalonia’s last bid for Independence, the Catalan government basically accepted a similar ruling by the Court and then used the ensuing vote for publicity and consensus building.
The Catalans seem a lot more bullish this time around. There is a determination to hold a legitimate referendum, which they will not accept as illegal, and then act on the results after. The interesting aspect for North Ireland will be the aftermath of a successful vote.
It is not entirely clear what will happen in this case. It seems almost impossible for Catalonia to gain independence without the explicit approval of Spain. They would certainly not be able to join the European Union, as every European Union member has a veto, through the Council of the EU.
If the vote allows the Catalans to gain additional leverage in future negotiations or indirectly lead to future approval for a future referendum by the Spanish Government, it may be soon as a very useful tool by Nationalists in Northern Ireland in future years.
This type of positioning and posturing is excellent PR for a cause and nothing gets the masses engaged like an Independence vote, as we saw in Scotland in the run up to their Independence bid.
There is almost certainly not a majority in Northern Ireland who would vote for unification with the Republic in a legal referendum which meets the requirements of the Good Friday Agreement today. There are probably though a few local councils where a Yes vote would be successful today, especially when the result of voting Yes is more symbolic than anything else. Even a Northern Ireland wide vote would be a lot closer in this scenario. There is nothing like telling people they can’t vote on something, that will make them want to.
I think the key point is that a successful Independence bid for Catalonia is very unlikely to come about from the upcoming referendum. However, if an illegal referendum is viewed in the future as the first step in Catalonia’s successful bid for independence, will this then be a precedent for Nationalists in Northern Ireland and further afield?
If there is clear evidence in the future that a majority want Northern Ireland to unify with the Republican of Ireland, will the leaders of the Nationalist parties really wait for the tacit approval of the British Government or will we be hearing a lot more about the “Catalan way”.
Ireland is increasingly being viewed as one of the most open, tolerant societies in the world, or at least we like telling ourselves so. There is no doubt that the Marriage Equality referendum in May 2015 was a watershed moment for our society. A chance to shake off some of the shackles of our Catholic past. A past which was often cold, brutal and closed off. This feeling that we have joined the upper echelon of socially liberal nations has been further magnified in the minds of many by two factors, one internal and one external.
Leo Varadkar’s ascent to become the Taoiseach of Ireland is undoubtedly an historic occasion in Ireland’s history. The fact that an openly gay man, who is the son of an Indian doctor can become the leader of the country is unquestionably a sign of progress. Irishness is no longer as monolithic as it once was. This trend has been taking place for a long time now and while Leo Varadkar is the current personification of this, there are plenty of other positive, grassroots examples of this throughout the country. A topic I would like to explore at a future date is that while the glass ceiling has been smashed for many with this appointment. We ,as a country, are still not doing enough to lessen inequality between the haves and have nots -if he was the son of an Indian factory worker or construction worker and not a doctor with a less polished South Dublin accent would this still have been possible?.
The decisions of our American and British neighbours to elect Donald Trump as President and vote for Brexit do seem to stand in stark contrast to our Yes result in the Marriage Equality Act. Both have been deemed by many in the mainstream media as backwards steps. Decisions underpinned by angry, old white men who yearn for the glory days of the past. Accusations of racism against supporters of both have been frequently levelled. Many social and political commentators have linked these two decisions as results of similar trends. Rapid changes in society, as well as the collapse of many industries and institutions that were formerly seen as the bedrock of the respective societies and national identities.
I think there is a certain truth to this. I also believe that these results were in part the responsibility of many of those who espouse views on the left of the political spectrum. Those who simply labelled trump supporters or pro- Brexiteers as ignorant, backwards, stupid or a combination of all three. There was so much dismissal of differing views and arrogance on the left. So little attempt at empathising with those whose views were different. I genuinely believe many people who were on the fence in both decisions could have been convinced with more conversation and less condescension.
This brings me to the upcoming abortion referendum in Ireland. The Repeal the 8th movement is already quite strong in Ireland and an all likelihood the referendum will be passed. However, there are many who believe in the right to life from the moment of conception. There is every chance that there plenty more who are uncertain and still on the fence. Many on the left and in the media see the result as a foregone conclusion. The recent government Public Assembly voted 79-12 in favour of abortion. Many on the pro life side believe this is not an accurate reflection of current public opinion.
There is a certain amount of hubris in Ireland at the moment. The economy is undoubtedly in the best place it has been in the last seven years. I have heard a lot of talk that we are “different to the British and Americans”. We would never make decisions as stupid as they have. While the referendum on abortion is a moral issue and not purely political like the other two shocks, many of the voting dynamics also exist in Ireland. Don’t be surprised if the day after the referendum in Ireland we wake to read that maybe we’re not so different after all. Maybe Ireland isn't quite the bastion of liberalism we’ve come to believe...
Demographics and Brexit. These are the two arguments I encounter most often when reading about how a United Ireland is likely to come into existence. On the face of it, they actually compliment each other quite well, demographics are the long term structural change that seem to move at glacial pace while Brexit is the shocking spark, the catalyst to re-invigorate nationalism. The modern-day equivalent of what Easter 1916 did to the Irish national psyche.. Combined, many believe (or hope) that these distinct factors have now put us on course for a United Ireland that cannot be stopped or diverted.
I believe this to be a very dangerous and arrogant assumption. It’s the multiple of the assumed maximum upside of both factors, transpiring as nationalists would hope. Furthermore, no time table accompanies this assumption and it could be twenty years before demographic change translates into a majority of people who want a United Ireland.
According to Section 1 of the GFA above the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will suggest a referendum if it appears likely a majority want a United Ireland. This vague language may prove to be a point of contention in the future. Would one election result in Northern Ireland where the Nationalist vote exceeded the unionist vote be enough? Or would the Nationalist vote have to exceed 50%+1 of the overall vote including Alliance, the Green Party etc? The closest the Nationalist vote has come to the Unionist vote was in March where there were only 1,200 votes between them. By June this had jumped back to 20,000 as the Unionist vote rallied.
There is no doubt that the Catholic population in Northern Ireland is growing faster than the Protestant one. There are many excellent sites that focus exclusively on NI demographics and I have used the voting graph from http://endgameinulster.blogspot.com.mt/. I don’t like to use this metric for much analysis as it is a horribly crude, sectarian headcount. One major challenge with the demographic argument is that over the next twenty years the newly eligible to vote Catholics will be part of the least religious generation in modern Ireland’s history. This generation are a lot less likely to associate their birth at religion with their national loyalties.
The 2021 British Census results will shed a lot more light on the demographics argument timeframe. It is unlikely, but there may not be another election in Northern Ireland until 2022. In that case, it would be four years for nationalists on both sides of the border to work on ideas and make further arguments without the distraction of elections.
The Brexit impact is that many of those who are currently comfortable living in Northern Ireland would become more favourable towards a United Ireland as Brexit divides the island again and wrecks the British economy. Nationalists shouldn’t simply assume this will happen. At the moment, it does look like Brexit is a shambles, however the UK has just reached its highest ever level of employment. Were the British government able to successfully implement a Brexit with minimal interference to their economy and a mostly technological solution to the border then a United Ireland might be further away than ever.
Perhaps less likely is the chance that Brexit would be so disastrous to Northern Ireland that the assumed annual British subvention to Northern Ireland of around 9 billion pounds would shoot up. In this case, there is every chance that the seemingly impregnable majority in the Republic who would vote for a United Ireland currently (based on polls) starts to dissipate.
As someone who would like to see a United Ireland as soon as possible without a return to violence, this article is not meant as a rebuke of nationalism today. It is a voice that wants to see a greater diversification of thought and dialogue. The arguments for a United Ireland must also have emotional appeal to a wide range of voters. It needs to be about building bridges and changing the discussion purely from a numbers game to a holistic approach that draws from economic, cultural and social arguments. There have been attempts at this and I hope to see more of these in the future. Demographics and Brexit have not changed the fact that currently more people in Northern Ireland would prefer to remain in the UK than to leave it. Let’s start changing that today with dialogue and imagination rather than waiting on events beyond our control…
The comments today from the UK Minister for Immigration , Brandon Lewis, were blunt and to the point “Free movement of labour ends when we leave the European Union in the spring of 2019. I’ll be very clear about that,”.
He added no caveats and made no mention of Ireland. While we Irish sometimes overestimate our own importance (small country syndrome if you will) it would be a massive blow if Irish citizens no longer had the right to work in the UK. It is a strange quirk that Irish residency in the UK is so taken for granted that I have been told more times that London is the sixth largest French city by population rather than it is the second largest Irish city on the same basis. The chart below illustrates just how crucuial this continued right to work will be.
“There has been a Common Travel Area between the UK and the Republic of Ireland for many years. Indeed, it was formed before either of our two countries were members of the European Union. And the family ties and bonds of affection that unite our two countries mean that there will always be a special relationship between us.
“So we will work to deliver a practical solution that allows the maintenance of the Common Travel Area with the Republic, while protecting the integrity of the United Kingdom’s immigration system.
“Nobody wants to return to the borders of the past, so we will make it a priority to deliver a practical solution as soon as we can.”
Above are the words of Theresa May when questioned on the topic in January. However a lot has changed since then domestically in the UK. Her leadership is no longer "strong and stable".
I do not believe Theresa May will be the British Prime Minister in March 2019 when the UK leaves the European. Ireland may be a victim of the hawkish, pro-Brexit faction of the Conservative party if they gain power in the meantime. If negotiations break down fully between the European Union and the UK then it is very possible that all the talk of ‘special recognition for Ireland’ will fall by the wayside.
It is too early to speculate based on one interview. However it would be prudent for the Irish government to keenly follow every development and statement from the key players in the British government from now until the final Brexit settlement is agreed. Finally as I have mentioned before it would be naive in the extreme to believe the Irish aspect of Brexit is anywhere near being settled...
Leo Varadkar and Emmanueal Macron's recent ascents to power are two of the most interesting political stories of 2017 for many global media outlets. They have shattered the record books for becoming the youngest leaders of Ireland and France respectively. Their personal relationships have captured the imagination of the wider public. Varadkar is Ireland's first openly gay leader while Macron married his secondary level drama teacher, 24 years his senior. Their enthusiatic and frank style of speech has lead to much praise and publicity. They are both viewed as 'fresh' and 'dynamic' in their homelands.
Now that I have gotten the seemingly obligatory fawning out of the way I want to dig a little deeper and highlight that while both of these politicians may espouse a new departure in politcs they are a lot more traditional than the public has so far realised.
The domestic conditions for their success do vary slightly, given my patriotic bias, we'll start with Varadkar. The leading party in Ireland, Fine Gael, has been in power since 2011. Enda Kenny has been their party leader since 2007 and is currently Ireland's longest serving member of Parliament. A very poor performance in the 2016 election led to him being returned as Taoiseach only as the head of a minority government. A number of controversies involving the national police force made his position untenable and there were very few shocked when he announced his intention to step down in mid May. Within 48 hours Leo Varadkar launched his campaign with a very smooth website and the immediate backing of two thirds of the party's members of parliament. His only opponent Simon Coveney stood little chance enduring what can only be descibed as the political equivalent of a blitzkrieg. Since his public announcement that he was gay in January 2015 in the lead up to the Marriage Equality referendum, every statement and public appearance has been carefully managed.
The sophistication of his campaign is definitely something he has in common with Macron, whose catchy (if completely meaningless) slogan En Marche! (Onwards!) seemingly captured the imagination of the French public. Or at least that is the narrative his campaign team pushed. In reality Macron emerged from one of the weakest pools of candidates ever put forward for a French Presidential election. The two traditional parties both offered flawed candidates. The Socialist candidate, Benoit Hamon, never really stood a chance after the disastrous tenure of his predecessor Francois Hollande. Francois Fillon of the Republican party was an early favourite before his campaign was derailed by allegations of corruption. Meanwhile the FN party of Marine Le Pen is reviled by a majority of the French Public. At times in the second round run-off the sum of Emmanuel Macron's argument for election amounted fact that he was 'not Le Pen'. Immigration often took centre stage in the campaign and Macron used this to take public attention away from his very pro-business policies and intention to reduce the government footprint on French society. To me these policies are basicaly those of the Republican party under Nicolas Sarkozy, wrapped in a shiny new box.
They include cutting public service headcount by 120,000 and reducing the headline corproate tax rate from 33% to 25%. This would take it lower than Germany, whose total rate varies from 30-33%. Furthermore, his intention to overhaul social welfare and provide employment insurance for all can be deemed a more conservative policy as it includes provisions like necessity to prove a genuine attempt to find a job and mandatory loss of benefits if two suitable positions are rejected.
Leo Varadkar has tried to limit his planned policies thus far as he was more intent on convincing the Fine Gael members to follow their elected parliamentarians. His manifesto for party leadership was titled 'Taking Ireland Forward' (another catchy but utterly meaningless slogan). His carefully managed facade has fallen on occasion and there were potentially ominous hints of what is to come when he said he wants to lead a party for 'people who get up early in the morning'. His manifesto has a distinct Thatcherite feel to it. In the past the Irish people have rejected governments who move too far to the right (including the decimation of the Progressive Democrats). A Fine Gael party who try and drive these policies through under the illusion of a 'new type pf politics' will suffer a similar fate.
I have undoubtedly taken a cynical view of both men and may in time be proven wrong (particularly as both men finally have time to act and not only use catchy soundbites). However until then it seems fitting to borrow a Gallic phrase to describe my views on the direction both men will take their countries ; 'plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose' . The rough translation for this is the more it changes, the more it stays the same...