FLIGHTS OF FANCY
June looks interesting.
Ireland will have a new Taoiseach on June 2 as Enda Kenny steps down. As I write, Leo Varadkar is the clear leader in the Parliamentary Party but, with party members also having a say, the contest still has a way to run. Whoever wins, the torch will pass to a new generation; Varadkar is 38, Coveney 44. There will be no honeymoon period for the victor. Already the clock is running on the Brexit negotiations and there are worries – generated by a shortfall in 2017 tax revenues to date – that the economy is slowing down, which could compound very quickly the expected negative impact from Brexit. Add to that the need to grapple with the unfinished or postponed business that enabled Kenny to hang on and his successor will have to hit the ground running.
Britain will have a new government also, but probably with the same leader. Britain goes to the polls on June 9 after Teresa May startled the nation – and the rest of Europe – by opting to call a snap general election. In fact, and subject to the caveat that you can never forecast quite how the electorate will vote (just ask Hilary), it makes a lot of sense. May became Prime Minister when Cameron fell on his sword last June after the Brexit vote and one year into a five year term. Article 50 – the trigger to exit the EU – was invoked at the end of March and both sides are now squaring up for tough negotiations with a two year time limit. Britain’s exit, which virtually all pundits agree will be painful all round, is therefore scheduled for March 2019.
That pain, therefore, will start to kick in just a year before an election would normally be due. Better, May’s thinking goes, to get the election over with now – particularly given the Tories current substantial lead in the polls – to allow several years for post Brexit Britain to bed down. May seems set to win, possibly by a landslide, thus establishing a clear mandate for a dog fight with Europe, which seems more and more likely given recent posturing on both sides.
Labour acquiesced – necessary for the Parliamentary support to approve the early holding of the election – and again, from the Labour leadership point of view, this makes sense. Jeremy Corbyn and his acolytes, written off by every commentator, hardly expect victory but resolutely hope to do rather better than seems likely at this point, and at least as well as Labour under Milliband did last time around. Thereafter, safe in the knowledge that all the post- Brexit pain and blame can be heaped at the Tories door, the Corbynistas believe that public anger and the swing factor endemic to British politics will work in their favour come 2022. Their unashamedly populist manifesto reflects this.
The Northern Ireland results will be watched carefully. Several factors have added spice this time around. Firstly, Northern Ireland, like Scotland, voted against Brexit last year, and by a healthy margin, 56% to 44%. Secondly the local political scene is currently frozen after the Power Sharing Executive collapsed in January. Thirdly the results of the subsequent Assembly elections showed Sinn Fein with virtually identical support to the DUP, prompting some speculation that the political fault lines in the North might at last be blurring. Indeed, on the Nationalist side there have been calls for a referendum on Irish unity, amid suggestions that, given the Referendum result, the North might be disposed to throw in its lot with the South, within the EU, rather that follow Britain out.
There is, frankly, very little chance of that happening. Let’s start with the Referendum. Northern Ireland, like Scotland, voted to remain. But an analysis makes for familiar reading. Nationalists, not surprisingly, were overwhelmingly in favour of the status quo, with estimates of 85% voting to remain. The Unionist vote was 60%– 40% to leave – and very much along the class and social lines evident in Britain, with the middle classes and more affluent favouring remain ( the DUP had advocated leave). The constituency map says it all with the Unionist heartlands in the East voting for Brexit. Not much change there, and, in respect of those 40% pro-EU Unionists , there was no rider about Irish unity attached.
Nor should that recent Assembly election result be misinterpreted. The election was precipitated after Sinn Fein withdrew over the so-called “Cash for Ash” scandal when the DUP First Minister, Arlene Foster, refused to stand aside during any inquiry into the scheme (to encourage the use of renewable energy by paying an over-generous subsidy without effective cost controls) which had been introduced during her watch as Enterprise Minister. For Sinn Fein it was a tactical move (which will cost them nothing, given the rules governing power sharing) to wrong-foot the DUP, with which there were ongoing frictions over parity of esteem issues such as funding for the Irish language. Sinn Fein’s action did nothing, however, for community relations.
The number of Assembly seats was reduced this time from 108 to 90, with obvious knock-on effects on the main parties. Sinn Fein saw its share of the vote, in an increased turnout, rise by 3.9%, but actually lost a seat. The DUP was the big loser, dropping ten seats, though its vote only fell by 1.1%. The combined Nationalist vote was 39.8%, up by that 3.9% over the 2016 result, but less than the 40% plus recorded in each of the previous three elections. The combined Unionist vote was 43.6%, without the Alliance (9.1%) and has never been previously below this figure. No sign of a sea-change there either.
There’s also the little matter of the annual subvention paid by Westminster to keep Northern Ireland afloat. This is currently running at around £9 billion annually – roughly 60% of Britain’s net contribution to the EU budget (one of the major factors likely to sour the forthcoming Brexit negotiations). There is simply no prospect that Ireland could pick up the subvention tab – even were Unionists to show willing to join the Republic. This basic economic truth is recognised by most people on both sides of the Border. Analogies with German reunification, where the affluent West picked up the tab for the basket-case East, are false.
However, there is no doubt that Brexit will concentrate minds. Both parts of Ireland face serious economic prospects after Brexit with disturbances and distortions to trade patterns and relationships built up over decades. In addition there is the practical challenge posed by the likely reintroduction of customs and immigration controls, in effect reconstituting the Border between North and South. This has political and social ramifications that could threaten the twenty year peace, not immediately, perhaps not fatally but potentially damaging to efforts to effect the long term reconciliation between the communities on the island. May and her Ministers seem seized of this and certainly politicians in the South are. But there is a circle to be squared –how to preserve the Common Travel Area after Brexit, particularly if Britain crashes out without a deal. Some tough negotiations beckon. Just one more headache for Enda’s successor.