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Larry Donnelly The immigration issue compounds uncertainty in Irish politics

Our columnist looks at the political upheavals in this country recently and asks what shape the next election results might take.

A MONTH ON from the “political earthquake” that was Leo Varadkar’s decision to resign as Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael, it is hard to get a handle on the state of play in Irish politics as local and European contests in June rapidly approach.

As an initial observation, this writer is among a distinct minority who didn’t find Varadkar’s announcement “shocking” in the slightest. He had declared on multiple occasions that he wouldn’t stay in public life forever. Additionally, reports from constituents in Dublin West and from journalists covering Leinster House were that he had seemed increasingly disengaged and disinterested since mid-2023. Speculation that he could abruptly leave politics behind was not uncommon.

Varadkar was fresh from an important St Patrick’s Day visit to Boston and to Washington, DC where he eloquently articulated the Irish government’s position on Gaza without equivocation – whether his sentiments were appreciated or not in the Kennedy Library and the White House. Going out on this high note, although the timing may have irked some of his parliamentary party colleagues and the Fine Gael faithful, was obviously appealing.

New leader

What was undeniably unanticipated was just how swiftly his successor, Simon Harris, managed both to dissuade potential rivals and emerge as the heir apparent. Of course, Harris had long been gearing up to take charge of his party, but he and those close to him envisaged that the date of reckoning remained a distance off, perhaps after the next general election when he would probably become the leader of the opposition rather than Taoiseach. Yet Team Harris sprang into action and the 37-year-old accomplished an extraordinary feat.

Harris has roughly 11 months, at the maximum, to prove himself in the top job. That’s the unenviable reality. Given this abbreviated time frame, and despite the insistence of commentators that he “bottled it” by not changing the composition of the cabinet more radically, he was wise to be cautious in his personnel choices.

The recent The Journal/Ireland Thinks poll indicating that 15% of voters would be less likely to favour Fine Gael with Harris at the helm is not encouraging. That the ascension of the “TikTok Taoiseach” makes 23% of those in their teens, twenties and thirties less inclined to support his party’s standard bearers has to be, frankly, disconcerting from his perspective.

Harris made his priorities clear in his address to the Fine Gael Ard Fheis in Galway. Insofar as the grating label is amenable to definition, they are vaguely of the “progressive centre.” Housing is key. There is a pledge to build a quarter of a million homes in five years. Reducing the cost of living, with measures to steadily ease the tax burden, features prominently, too.

Law and order – specifically, getting tough on crime and imposing lengthier sentences on violent offenders – and equality of opportunity – which is taken to include better access to education, disability services and quality health care – are stressed. Further afield, there are aspirations for a two-state solution in the Middle East and for “peaceful cooperation on our island” by working together on a “North/South, East/West” basis.

There are no surprises here. Harris is putting a decent foot forward, even as critics wonder what he truly stands for and is capable of apart from communicating nice-sounding ambitions and lofty platitudes well. A faction within Fine Gael applauds what they hope is getting back to basics, with careful attention paid to the concerns of the farming community, and moving away from the “woke agenda.” That said, Harris is not for turning on the issue of climate change and asserts he will not abandon the internally controversial pending legislation on hate speech.

Election season

Now to consider a few complicated, short-term questions ahead of the locals and Europeans. First, having been in government for over a decade and faring unimpressively in the polling, Fine Gael may be in trouble. The last thing Harris needs is a very bad result. It surely could not be attributed entirely to him. Yet how much would a poor outcome harm him politically? And who would benefit at his and his party’s expense?

Second, to what extent will the evident stalling in Sinn Féin’s formerly inexorable rise in popularity be reflected in its performance? Presumably, Mary Lou McDonald and Co. will have a good day. Yet mixed messaging on immigration has arguably driven some on the left to gravitate toward the Social Democrats et al. and elements of its working class base to embrace right-wing Independents and fledgling parties agitating to shut Ireland’s borders.

The third – and the biggest, in my assessment – is how many people will be animated primarily by immigration – or to be precise, opposition thereto – when they go to their polling places in six weeks or so?

Opinion surveys show that 70% + believe that the number of immigrants arriving is excessive. Approximately a third would vote for an avowedly anti-immigrant party.

While those in the bubbles of politics, journalism and academia continue to be reticent to discuss immigration and are prone to minimising its potential significance, I am convinced that there is something simmering beneath the surface. For instance, I would not underestimate how much of the massive No vote in the two referendums lost by the government in March was fuelled by anger about immigration, however tenuous its connection to what the people were being asked.

Anecdotally, it is the political topic most frequently brought up in chats with neighbours on the road or over pints with friends and acquaintances in pubs and at the golf club. The vast majority say the entry of immigrants must be slowed or halted.

The viewpoints offered range from those who are regrettably extremist or racist to those who are compassionate, but think that the country should press the pause button temporarily, regardless of international or European level obligations, because of the lack of housing supply and the consequent failing of provision for new arrivals. There are plenty who are in between. My suspicion is that they will make their voices heard and that surprises lie in store.

It is a second order election. Nonetheless, absorbing the verdict that is rendered on 7 June and analysing what it means for the polity as we face into a general election will be fascinating. When it will be held is the other “known unknown” at the moment and the subject of incessant conjecture.

Some pundits contend that growing discontent within Fianna Fáil means that the government won’t last until 2025 – or that a fissure of another provenance in the coalition later in 2024 is inevitable. Conversely, it is difficult for me to fathom what is gained by Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil or the Greens in going early. Indeed, I felt that way before Leo Varadkar opted to quit. Why would Simon Harris want to truncate his already brief tenure in the Taoiseach’s office? It would be an inherently risky gambit.

Then again, predictions are a fool’s errand in this climate of abundant uncertainty.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston lawyer, a Law Lecturer at the University of Galway and a political columnist with

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