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What does a UK election mean for Ireland? It could be good news you know...

… from a Brexit point of view at least. But could it bring about a border poll?

May visit to Ireland The only way is up - Enda Kenny with UK prime minister Theresa May at Government Buildings in January Source: Niall Carson

SO, THERE’S A snap general election on the way in the UK. Or at least there will be if the British Parliament votes in favour of same today. Which, in all likelihood, it will.

On polling day, Thursday 8 June, it’ll be barely a month over two years since the Conservatives, led by David Cameron, waltzed home to a somewhat unexpected victory in 2015, and with a slight majority to boot.

Now of course, it’s Theresa May calling the shots after Cameron got hoisted on his own Brexit-shaped petard. Generally speaking, much like here, parliamentary terms in the UK are supposed to run for five years.

May has chosen to call such an election (something she had repeatedly said she would not do) for two main reasons:

  1. Brexit negotiations with the EU are imminent. At present May’s slight majority and ability to effectively pass legislation is dependent on a number of hard ‘Brexiteers’ on her own back benches – those seeking for Britain to sever all ties with the European Union. She has also yet to gain her own mandate as prime minister via a general election. Assuming the Tories win as easily as people expect them to, both issues could be swatted aside in one fell swoop, leaving May free to pursue her country’s Brexit agenda as she sees fit.
  2. The health of the political opposition to the Tories is in such a shambolic state it would be remiss of May not to take advantage of it. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is currently sitting as poorly in the nationwide polls as it has done since even before the electoral cataclysm that was Michael Foot’s tenure as leader in the early 1980s. This new election is an opportunity for the Conservatives to possibly deal their old rivals a potentially mortal blow.

Which is all well and good. But here on our side of the Irish Sea, we’re all wondering how May’s surprise announcement is going to affect our own island. Well…

It could be good for Ireland

Yes, really. From an economic standpoint at any rate. Basically, no matter how many times she says “Brexit means Brexit” Theresa May is not necessarily a hard Brexiteer – she just happens to have embraced that message since the vote to Leave the EU last June which cost her predecessor his job.

Assuming her party crushes all and sundry on 8 June, she will have an unassailable mandate to govern, and the ability to conduct what will certainly be tortuous trade negotiations with the EU on her own terms. That will probably mean Britain fighting to stay in the Common Market. And given Britain is our largest trading partner, that would probably mean a degree of stability for Irish companies and exporters.

“If she wants to stay in the Common Market she’ll need a new backbench,” says doctor of statistics and pollster Kevin Cunningham of UCD, adding that in order to stay in the Common Market May would need a backbench enlarged with those of a more liberal mindset.

A bigger majority, which is the effective aim of this exercise, would certainly leave her in a position where she would no longer have to rely on her backbenches and may give her room for a ‘softer’ Brexit.

And a soft Brexit is commonly seen as being better news for the Irish economy. That said, Theresa May has also emphasised “a desire to leave the customs union and trade with the rest of the world”, says Cunningham. But will her actions speak louder than her words? Only time will tell.

Don’t expect a Border Poll anytime soon

Ulster Assembly election 2017 Gerry Adams and Sinn Féin's Northern leader Michelle O'Neill Source: PA Wire/PA Images

It may surprise the Irish citizen to learn that the existence of our little country, or the six counties of Northern Ireland, carry little weight regarding the plans of your average UK Conservative.

“It just brings home that Northern Ireland has little consideration in Theresa May’s longer term plans,” says lecturer at the University of Ulster David McCann of the prime minister’s decision. “It’s just not anything she’s concerned about.”

But could her decision lead to a Border Poll, and a possible united Ireland? Under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, if it is deemed that a majority of those voting in Northern Ireland would choose for the country to cease being part of the UK and merge with the Republic, such a poll can be held both north and (separately) south of the border.

“That’s something that will be dictated by the Secretary of State (James Brokenshire),” says McCann.

I don’t see how it’s in any way likely within the next short period, although the way things have been going lately who knows. If you see another Nationalist surge in the election then yes it could put more pressure on the calling of such a poll.

Which leads us to…

It could be bad news for Sinn Féin

This requires a little explanation. Sinn Féin’s result in the recent Northern Assembly elections was something of a triumph for the party, in that it lost just one seat to the DUP’s 10, shattering the unionists’ majority in the Assembly for the first time.

While the DUP and Sinn Féin are currently deadlocked  as to the creation of a fresh executive (the DUP leadership of Arlene Foster, dogged by the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal, being the chief bone of contention), the election of Northern Irish representatives to Westminster brings out a different kind of voter in the North, according to Cunningham.

Ulster Assembly election 2017 Arlene Foster Source: Niall Carson

“Sinn Féin could look for a double dissolution of both the Assembly and Westminster at the same time to bolster their position,” he says.

But the island of Ireland is funny and doesn’t always do what you might expect it to. A lot of voters in the North who ignore the Assembly will come out to play when the 18 Northern Irish Westminster seats are up for grabs. And those kind of voters tend to vote Unionist.

Which makes DUP MP Ian Paisley Jr’s assertion yesterday that the coming election will effectively be “a vote on the union” all the more interesting. Are the North’s unionists banking on reasserting themselves using the rise of Sinn Féin as a cautionary example as to what can happen when their grassroots support loses its motivation?

Theresa May has little interest in Northern Ireland

“This has so little to do with Ireland,” says Gary Murphy, head of DCU’s School of Law and Government. “She’s not thinking about Ireland at all. There is precious little sympathy towards Northern Ireland with regards to either Brexit or the Assembly. I’m not convinced that the Tories have ever really cared about Northern Ireland.”

It’s clearly a mandate-seeking device.

Murphy says that while May is “no hard Brexiteer”, she is “sceptical about Europe”.

“She thinks a large mandate will give her better leverage. It’s a typical Britain-first approach, but who are we to complain about that?”

The only person he sees as being critically injured by the election is Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

“You have MPs saying ‘at least we’ll be rid of him now’,” he says. “I’m afraid that will be the case.”

Even in 1983 when Thatcher destroyed Foot’s Labour, even then support was strong for Labour in the heartlands. But supporters seem to have made up their mind on Corbyn. Right now that party is in an even worse position. Which is good for the Liberal Democrats I suppose.

It’s extremely unlikely this will backfire on the prime minister

Whatever effect the coming election will have on Ireland, don’t expect anything other than a resounding Conservative victory, one that could even amount to a 100-seat majority for Theresa May.

Cunningham says that May isn’t “as good a performer as Cameron was”, so her ability to get her message across effectively may be called into question.

Brexit Charlie Flanagan Source: Niall Carson

Her message is that Britain needs a strong mandate heading into these talks with the EU – and that’s a very strong line, one none of her opponents can match.
There are other factors – it’s a summer election, which could affect turnout. And I suspect that Britain may have election fatigue – they’ve had the Scottish independence referendum, the last general election, the Leave/Remain referendum – all in a short space of time. I suspect turnout will be down personally.

“I think it’s eminently sensible that Charlie Flanagan (our own Minister for Foreign Affairs) has said that the emphasis should be on forming an Assembly in the North,” says Murphy meanwhile.

Flanagan said yesterday that a “functioning executive” with all parties “engaging” should be the priority on this side of the water, adding that the “fragile nature” of the situation in the North could be compounded  by the distraction of the coming Westminster elections.

“That said, I’m not convinced that anything will significantly change for Ireland if May gets a renewed mandate,” adds Murphy. “Albeit, it might give both the Republic and Britain alike a little leeway in negotiations.”

I’d certainly be very surprised if it backfired on May. I’d be amazed if it’s anything other than a decisive victory for the Tories.

Read: Theresa May’s to lose? Here’s how the main parties measure up ahead of the UK election

Read: Austin Stack says wording on Martin McGuinness’s headstone is insulting

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