SORROWS IN BATTALIONS
It’s been an eventful few weeks.
Teresa May has now gone as Tory Party leader and Boris Johnson is the clear favourite to succeed her (7 to 1 on with the bookies). He and one other candidate will battle it out, with up to 160,000 Conservative Party members deciding the winner.
Ireland is now in somewhat of a phoney war situation regarding Brexit. The pantomime antics in the House of Commons over recent months saw agreement possible on nothing beyond the emergence of a clear majority against a No Deal Departure. This has now to be factored in with the looming likelihood that Johnson, who has declared in favour of exiting the EU by Halloween, deal or no deal, will shortly become Britain’s Prime Minister. There are rumours that, to circumvent Parliamentary opposition to a no deal exit, the Commons might be prorogued, which could precipitate a constitutional crisis. Would Johnson do it? He’s been carefully non –committal on just about everything, bragging that he will renegotiate the deal May agreed with Brussels, despite the flat negatives from there. What happens next is anybody’s guess. Irish politicians can only watch and wait – and make what contingency plans they can. Two alternative budgets are being prepared. We live in interesting times.
In early June Ireland survived a visit by Trump, who appeared in good mood following his state visit to Britain. He overnighted twice at his Doonbeg Golf Resort in Clare, with a visit to Normandy for the seventy fifth anniversary of D Day sandwiched in between. The only “official” aspect of what was a private visit was a brief meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Shannon Airport. The exchanges seem to have been good natured, though Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin attended, which may have been significant -the US Treasury recently added Ireland to its “watch list” of countries running large trade surpluses with the USA. It probably did Ireland no harm to have the pro-Irish Irish American Presidential chief of staff Mike Mulraney also in attendance. At the moment Trump appears not to take us too seriously and to be well disposed – but that could change. Something few have remarked on is that this brief visit has got the Taoiseach off the hook – lightly – of his open invitation to Trump to visit. There will be no visit in 2020, an election year, and in 2021 hopefully no Trump!
The visit did not go unprotested. An anti-Trump demonstration took place outside Shannon Airport on his arrival and a much larger one was held in Dublin the following day. These were hardly unexpected. There has been some opposition and demonstrations for a number of years at Shannon over its use as a stopover for US troops, while Trump in Ireland was always likely to act as a lightning rod for anti-Trump protesters as well as usual anti-US protesters, over Palestine, Latin America and now the US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. The Trump family received a warm welcome from the local villagers – hardly surprising given that the Golf Resort is by far the area’s major employer, directly and indirectly. The visit, the demos, the reception, the media reaction all point up again the sometimes ambivalent nature of Ireland’s relationship with the USA.
In May Ireland voted separately three times. Irish Citizens only could vote on a proposed Constitutional amendment, Irish and EU citizens could vote in the European Parliament elections and all Irish residents could vote in the local elections. The turnout in all three polls was around 50%, with the European poll the lowest at 49.2%. In Northern Ireland, where two of the three seats went to pro-EU candidates, probably reflecting the 56% “Remain” vote in the 2016 Brexit referendum, turnout was down over 6% to 45.14%.
Electoral practice in Ireland requires that voting be on paper ballots by pencil with counting of votes done by hand. An attempt some years ago to introduce electronic voting machines was eventually abandoned after political controversy amid doubts about the security of the process. Counting is therefore a lengthy and painstaking process with the type of voting system actually used – proportional representation using the single transferable vote – sometimes resulting in marathon counting sessions stretching over several days. The system works well apart from the time element, though controversy, challenges and recounts can be regular features. Importantly also the system scores high on public acceptability; there are never allegations of vote rigging or fraud, with, on occasion, some fascinating election “contests” and unexpected results from the quirks in the PR system. This occasion proved to be no different, with one of the European constituencies – Ireland South – taking almost a week to produce a final result.
There was no such marathon determining the outcome of the Constitutional Referendum, which was a simple Yes or No issue. The Referendum, which proposed making divorce easier by removing the four year advance separation requirements and recognising foreign divorces, was carried by an overwhelming (82%) vote to remove, another outcome in line with the changing nature of Irish society as demonstrated by other recent poll results. It was a far cry from that in the landmark 1995 referendum which removed the ban on divorce by a meagre 9,114 votes, just half of 1%. On that occasion with”Hello Divorce Goodbye Daddy” the slogan of the “No” lobby , 809,728 voted No, with the results showing also a clear urban/rural split. This time, even with a much greater (30%) electorate the number voting No was down by two thirds to 302,319.
It will be interesting to see just what effect removing the required waiting period will have on Ireland’s very low divorce rate (0.7 per 1000 population – the lowest in Europe). With four years to wait many couples just abandoned the idea and opted to live apart or to become judicially separated, or – if finances dictated – to share the same house, but not-cohabit (the Urban Dictionary’s “Irish Divorce”). Societal changes in recent decades have led also to many thousands of couples opting to dispense with marriage altogether and just live together. The annual rate of marriages (21,083 in 2018), at 4.3 per thousand is as low as it has been anytime in the last half century.
The results in the two elections will be pored over for pointers for the next General Election, due before 10 April 2021. Whether any accurate conclusions can be drawn is another matter, particularly given the uncertainty over Brexit. The big story, among the main parties, was the sharp decline in support for Sinn Fein. Apart from that it was nip and tuck in the local elections between Fine Gael (25.26%) and Fianna Fail (26.92%), an outcome almost a repeat of that five years earlier. (All percentages quoted are for first preference votes). The results in the European Parliament elections, if they signify anything, show that the most high profile candidates do best, with party affiliation not as important.
There seems little incentive from these results to encourage Leo Varadkar to call an election. The magic number some pundits thought might persuade him to cut and run would have been 30% plus together with a substantial lead over Fianna Fail. He got neither where it mattered, in the local elections. Indeed the most recent opinion poll suggests Fianna Fail’s slight lead has solidified.
Fine Gael almost made their target in the European Parliament elections, winning four out of the eleven “real” seats (and 29.6% of the vote to Fianna Fail’s 16.6%), but this was due as much to the superiority of their strong candidates over Fianna Fail’s nominees, as to any party political preferences. Moreover the European Parliament is not strictly a Parliament in the sense of a legislative body, something the electorate knows well, so voting is more candidate than policy focussed. Strong independents tend to do well and this time was no exception, with two of the most high profile Dail Deputies winning election. Three of Ireland’s eleven MEPs are now independents.
For Sinn Fein the results were a disaster, echoing its performance in last year’s Presidential election. In the European elections its vote slumped to 11.7% from 19.5% in 2014, with the party losing two of its three seats. In the local elections it took another drubbing with its vote dropping below 10% and its seats halved to 81. Only in the North did its support hold up relatively well. The party is clearly at a crossroads. Its relative success in the Noughties came from vacuuming up much traditional Republican support, augmented by a pitch for votes from the left. It supplanted Labour as the third force in Irish politics and for a while there seemed even the possibility that it might challenge and overtake Fianna Fail (as it had done to the SDLP in the North).
However the economic recovery and the surprising durability of the FG-FF Confidence and Supply arrangement underpinning the Government put paid to that notion. While there is little focus nowadays on its past IRA links, the party still appears to have a credibility issue. It is all very well to be constantly negative, but this automatically constricts options and the possibility of alliances. Moreover whatever about disenchantment with the two main parties, support for the Left in Ireland remains limited. A merger between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael would undoubtedly help Sinn Fein by opening the possibility of a fundamental realignment of Irish politics along Right/Left lines. This might well happen – who knows what will emerge from the cauldron of Brexit and/or another recession – but right now Sinn Fein needs to decide whether it will remain a party of the left or begin to move towards the centre and seek to broaden its support base.
The election issue which dominated media coverage did not concern the three main parties, but the relative success of the Greens, on the coattails of the current flavour-of -the -year topic (and indeed of the decade) – Global Warming and Climate Change, a trend evident also in most of the older (prior to 2004) EU countries. The Greens had been virtually wiped out in the 2011 General Election, punished for their role in government when the Crash happened. Now they’re back, though not to the extent portrayed by the media. In the European elections they secured 11.4% of votes cast winning two seats (out of thirteen) and coming fourth, while in the local elections they got 5.5%, quadrupling their seats to 49 and coming fifth, this time just behind Labour, which continues to flounder.
The Greens polled particularly well in Dublin, winning a seat and coming second in the European elections with 17.54% and third in all three Council elections, gaining over 10% in each. They polled well also in Ireland South (10.56%), winning a seat, and in Midlands NW (8.58%), where their candidate, a woman from Achill, became something of a media favourite after taking on Peter Casey, second in the Presidential election last year, over the immigration issue. (Casey failed to win a seat, but did win almost 10% of the vote). Interestingly, in the North the Greens secured only 2.2%, as against a Green vote throughout the UK of 11.4%. Tactical voting was clearly at play here, as the eventual outcome saw a second pro-EU MEP elected with a seat going to the Alliance Party.
Whither the Greens next? They have been thrown a lifeline by the current concern over the Environment, something which is not going away anytime soon. They are a niche party, overwhelmingly middle class, which has had mixed political success in recent decades. Right now they are on the up but the danger is that their policies could be hijacked by the major parties – particularly on this issue (it wouldn’t be the first time). They clearly reflect a growing concern for the future of the Environment, particularly among the young. There is no doubt that Climate Change is now centre stage and will feature as an issue in all future party manifestoes. The Taoiseach’s first comments were to acknowledge public concern and that the clear message from voters was that “they want us to act faster.”
And indeed there has been a start at least. On 17 June the Government launched its comprehensive Climate Action Plan 2019, providing an aspirational roadmap and timetable to move to a carbon neutral society by 2050. The lengthy document is strong on rhetoric, proposing 183 measures covering all aspects of the economy. Inter alia targets and dates have been set for banning petrol and diesel cars, domestic oil and gas boilers, and for increasing renewable energy sources, overhauling waste management and controls, introducing new building regulations and proposing ambitious retro-fitting for older homes.
There is, however, a distinct shortage of detail and no reference to the cost and who would pay, beyond setting down a marker that the taxpayer could not pay it all and that it was “essential that the burdens borne were seen to be fair and that every group is seen to be making an appropriate level of effort.” The plan has been well received – as a start, but the first hurdle it will face will be an increase in the Carbon Tax in the October budget .This will be a difficult one, particularly against the uncertain background and future regarding Brexit, but not to act would invite charges of hypocrisy.
Whatever about the achievability of these goals, no one doubts their desirability. But, to a certain extent the proposals, and the national debate, are taking place in a universe parallel to what is happening elsewhere in the world. “Reducing the carbon footprint” has now become a mantra. The EU targets for 2020and 2030 are being treated like tablets of stone, with the accompanying comfortable assumption that if only Ireland achieves the 2030 (we’ll miss 2020) target and the more ambitious one of carbon neutrality by 2050 everything will be all right. It won’t. The EU Twenty Eight (including Britain) contributes only 10% of the world’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions. The issue is global not national or even regional. I refer anyone who doubts this to Wallace-Wells’ book “The Uninhabitable Earth.”
Finally, one virtual certainty about 2050.By then the world’s population will be roughly 9.3 billion, 1.5 billion more than it is today – and none of the increase will be in Europe.
In 2050 Boris Johnson will be eighty five.