It’s hard to believe that the Brexit referendum took place over three years ago. June 23rd 2016 brought us a democratic result that nobody believed was possible, including a lot of the people that campaigned and voted for it. As Britain’s nearest neighbours it was clear that Brexit was going to have a huge impact on Irish Politics. I’m not sure anyone expected it to be the all-consuming issue that it has been for over three years and counting.
Brexit couldn’t have come at a worse time for Irish politicians. 2016’s general election provided a completely inconclusive result. The Fine Gael led government that was formed on May 6th 2016 was in the weakest conceivable position. They were only in office because Fianna Fail decided to let them. Confidence and supply was a clever way out for a Fianna Fail party that knew a term in government as Fine Gael’s juniors would likely see the end to the two and a half party system. Other parties would grow and the government parties wouldn’t. It was a move that clearly put the future electoral chances of Fianna Fail above the countries need for a stable government. It was about avoiding power and responsibility. Brexit changed everything.
Britain was imploding and Europe was having to engage and negotiate Brexit. Ireland needed a strong stable government to ensure we didn’t go down with the Brexit ship. Against all the odds we got one. The Fine Gael led government has not performed at all well on countless important home issues, but on Brexit it has excelled. Veradker has placed Irish interests at the heart of the E.U.’s negotiating position. This has been no mean feat. He has spoken up at the right times. He has negotiated and compromised at the right time. And he has taken on the D.U.P. Our northern friends still haven’t realised that the more the D.U.P. attack Leo, the more popular he becomes.
The public goodwill that Fine Gael enjoy as a result of their ongoing Brexit performance might well be enough to see them perform strongly in a general election. Brexit is the issue of now. It is drowning out public anger about the National Children’s Hospital, Broadband, the disgraceful level of homelessness and our housing crisis and so much else. It will probably even drown out the public disgust at Maria Bailey’s behaviour and the general feeling that the average Fine Gael T.D. lives in an different world than the rest of us. A place where life is easier and there are silver spoons.
The problem with politics is that it is current. Fine Gael’s Brexit dividend is perishable. It has a use-by date. It won’t be long until all those other issues become more important to people as Brexit becomes less current. The longer Fine Gael wait, the lower their chances of returning to power. An early election will be tempting for Leo Veradker.
Fianna Fail will have the opposite desires. This Dáil term has been about rehabilitation for them. Having looked into the abyss and with their credibility and morality in question Michael Martin had only a long, narrow and treacherous path to recovery available. He has traversed it well. Despite the questionable reasons for entering into confidence and supply in the first place, Fianna Fail can rightly claim some credit for Ireland’s Brexit performance. They facilitated a stable government at a time when it was vital. They have been supportive of the Government’s Brexit strategy (with the sole exception of Timmy Dooley who seems to be playing the longest of games, lining up the D.U.P. for a future coalition).
They have effectively been in government but will avoid the blame for the government’s poor performance at home. It has been nothing short of a political master stroke. Fianna Fail’s chances of returning to power will continue to grow and the longer they can hold off an election the better for them. The only lever they have is the threat of painting Fine Gael as dishonest for going to the country early. The fact that they can even employ a strategy like this is testament to how far they have come.
It is now beyond doubt that the next government will be lead by Fine Gael or Fianna Fail. Before Brexit, Sinn Fein were on the rise to such an extent that they had genuine ambitions of upsetting this status quo. Brexit has been a disaster for them. Who would have predicted that the blueshirts would be the ones ably dealing with the D.U.P. while Sinn Fein sat on the sidelines? This is what has happened. With no Stormont assembly and abstentionist M.P.’s, Sinn Fein have been largely invisible on Brexit. They are going to have to learn some new tricks to get back on their old trajectory. Expect seat losses and no involvement in government formation.
The Green Party will likely be the fourth largest party in the next Dáil. This would be a serious upturn in fortune but it is likely only the start for them. Climate issues are growing ever more important to people. As people become more Green many of them will vote for the party that carries that name. Eamon Ryan’s regular gaffes may slow the rise of the Green Party, buy the direction of travel is up. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see them as junior coalition partners to Fine Gael. They may be too wounded to move back in with Fianna Fail. And they have very long term plans to deal with the last rural holdouts to Green Party dominion, Wolves. (Assuming there is still a planet of course.)
Pat Rabitte puts it best when assessing the position of the Labour Party. They remain becalmed. While Fianna Fail’s rehabilitation from almost destroying the country is nearing completion, there are few signs of Labour’s recovery from trying to fix it. Labour is on a long road and the next election will tell a lot. Whether or not to seek junior coalition status will be a big call and there are reasons for and against.
After that we have the Social Democrats who are growing but are doing so slowly. Four seats would be a huge step forward. Aontu will do well to surpass one. There will be less independents as the big parties compete but there will still be plenty. Expect independents in government. AAA/PBP will likely maintain numbers but won’t be a factor in government formation.
Brexit has changed the Irish political landscape and its effects will be felt for a long time. Although it may have come at just the right time to save the status quo.
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