British and Irish politics have been intertwined for centuries, a fact that Irish political observers have never been able to forget. Such is the case with the saga of Brexit. However, if Irish must now accept Brexit as inevitable, there are a few fundamental protections that cannot be undone.
It might not be obvious from the outside, but Irish politics has been in a state of limbo since the Brexit referendum in June 2016. A few months beforehand, Ireland’s general election returned a fractured parliament. The Labour Party was harshly punished after five years in government with centre-right party Fine Gael during an austerity regime and, heavily wounded, the party returned to the opposition benches. Fine Gael continued in minority government with an incoherent group of independent parliamentarians and a confidence-and-supply agreement with the main opposition party Fianna Fáil.
More recently, with palpable public dissatisfaction with the government’s performance in housing and health, and economic mismanagement related to key infrastructure, it is clear that the government has run out of ideas. The glue that holds it together has been the need to establish certainty and a unified position across Ireland’s party system while Brexit remains unresolved. The large majority given to the Conservative Party in what has been called the “Brexit election” means that there is a degree of certainty for now. We know that the Brexit date of 31stJanuary is a reality and that Irish politics can move on.
“The past few years in opposition have been difficult for the Irish Labour Party but there have been some marginal improvements in recent local and byelections”
The upshot is that we can expect a general election to take place in Ireland before May. The immediate impact this will have on the Irish Labour Party is an open question. The past few years in opposition have been difficult for but there have been some marginal improvements in recent local and byelections. On the long road to recovery, consolidation and progress will be the key aims. Like most other parties, Labour will maintain the consensus surrounding Ireland’s priorities during negotiations between the UK and EU.
For Ireland, there is no such thing as a good Brexit. However, if we must now accept Brexit as inevitable, there are a few fundamental protections that cannot be undone. Of greatest importance is the maintenance of an open border with Northern Ireland and the integrity of the Belfast Agreement, the blueprint for peace which brought decades of conflict to an end. There are still concerns about the economic impact of Brexit on thousands of workers and businesses in sectors for which the UK is the main export market, and this will disproportionately affect people outside Ireland’s main cities. Uncertainty for these sectors will continue until the nature of the post-Brexit trade deal becomes clearer.
“For Ireland, there is no such thing as a good Brexit”
One political dynamic worth watching as the elections approach will be the performance of left-nationalist party Sinn Féin. As an all-Ireland party (i.e. representing north and south), Sinn Féin has MPs in Westminster. Yet the MPs refuse to recognise that parliament’s jurisdiction on the island of Ireland and do not take their seats. Added to this, the Northern Ireland Executive is not currently operational and Sinn Féin is seen as partially responsible. Therefore, on the biggest issue affecting Irish interests, north and south, the only genuine all-Ireland party has been effectively AWOL. Their main contribution has been to call for a border poll, i.e. a plebiscite as to whether Northern Ireland and the Republic should unify. For now, the strategy appears to have backfired, as even those who support this aspiration feel that is will be premature and provocative to the Unionist community in Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin had attracted votes from the Labour Party in working class areas in the last election, and from younger voters in general. Yet the party has performed poorly in subsequent contests as its judgement calls are increasingly questioned.
The impact of UK Labour Party in Ireland
Looking at the implosion of the UK Labour Party’s vote has been painful for socialists and social democrats across Europe. Unsurprisingly, Irish Labour supporters follow the UK sister party especially closely. Terms of reference – derogatory, complimentary or otherwise – from UK Labour are regularly used within the discourse of Irish Labour. So, to observe Labour’s losses, especially in its heartlands, has been disquieting and frustrating. Most Irish Labour supporters are relatively pro-EU in orientation, and watching the protracted failure of the UK party to offer a coherent narrative on the main issue of the election was torturous at times, even for people sympathetic to Corbyn’s broader economic agenda.
Ireland needs a strong UK Labour Party. Conservative Prime Ministers, with the honourable exception of John Major, have generally viewed Ireland through the prism of British nationalism or as an afterthought. Boris Johnson has proven himself to be the most cavalier. By indulging the worst jingoistic excesses of the Democratic Unionist Party, he risked destabilising a fragile system, before unceremoniously kicking them to the kerb when they were no longer useful. His actions have stirred animosity among communities within Northern Ireland and relations between the UK and Irish governments have been frostier too. It is difficult to have warm relations when the UK Prime Minister is not seen as a trustworthy partner so it is important to have effective opposition in Westminster. Whoever succeeds Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader cannot afford to hide away as this process proceeds.
The next Irish government is likely to follow a similar strategy to the current one when it comes to the trade agreement between the UK and EU. Striking the right balance between the imperatives of the Single Market and Customs Union and the measures needed to protect peace in Northern Ireland will be the key challenge. At present, it seems unlikely that the Labour Party will re-enter government, but if it does, the priorities will remain the maintenance of peace and jobs and repairing the damage of the past four years. This will involve Ireland looking outward to Europe, in terms of politics, culture and economic interests and inward to our nearest neighbours in Northern Ireland. The challenge will be to build bridges across communities and to mitigate the damage of Brexit and Boris Johnson’s newly emboldened right-wing government.