All change in Ireland? And what will the impact be in Britain?

All change in Ireland? And what will the impact be in Britain?

by Tom Gallagher
article from Monday 10, February, 2020

LEO ERIC VARADKAR thought that bashing Britain over Brexit would be the campaign theme that would enable his Fine Gael Party to achieve a second decade in power.  But instead, at 41, he looks washed-up politically and is unlikely to be in charge  if the deadlocked result on means another general election has to be held before the year is out.  His party could only manage third place, and personally he came fifth out of the five slots in his own constituency. Sinn Fein has emerged as the winner, though far from having an overall majority.

An exit found that only 1 per cent of voters identified Brexit as the most important issue for them.  Health was the chief concern of 32 per cent, closely followed by housing and homelessness. The terrible twins of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have no answers for these grave problems.  Power to them was not about problem-solving but using control of the state to reward themselves and their backers in different ways.

After Fianna Fail crashed the economy in 2008 by allowing unsupervised banks to exploit dangerous imbalances in the Eurozone, Fine Gael then took over. It presided over a bogus economic recovery which masked grinding austerity to pay off the EU loans that Brussels imposed on Irish taxpayers to rescue the insolvent banks. Leaving aside corporate Europe, the chief beneficiaries of Fine Gael rule have been high-tech North American conglomerates which have set up headquarters in Ireland on the promise of paying only nominal taxes.  Beyond Dublin, economic conditions are as bleak as in run-down parts of the north of England and there is no sign of a revival for the indigenous economy.

Increasingly, Fine Gael left ailing public services to be run by NGOs which receive an unusually high proportion of state expenditure. It and its tribal adversary concentrated on the advantages to be acquired from turning Ireland into a North Atlantic outpost of global liberal capitalism. When Britain made it increasingly clear that it was leaving the EU, there was apoplexy. This was not on account of the chief destination for Irish farm exports now likely to be outside a customs union (a problem arising from the refusal of the EU to allow members to strike bilateral deals with third countries to which it was closely aligned). Instead, dismay and anger within the Dublin elite stemmed from the disruption  of patronage networks that enabled professionals (increasingly divorced from life in Ireland) to  prosper in the labyrinth of EU institutions and their commercial and legal arms.

Varadkar is likely to be found a place in the European Commission, as has been the case with so many unsuccessful but loyal domestic politicians previously. But relations of trust between the political class and the voters have been shattered.  From 2016 Fine Gael (FG) was propped up by its rival Fianna Fail (FF) and both pressurised their centrist or conservative followers to accept socially liberal and economically deregulated policies that were alien to their instincts.

However, two bogus rivals with the same acquisitive approach to politics urging the same open borders policies on dissatisfied voters became too much for the electorate to bear.  A vacuum opened up which was filled by Sinn Fein, a nationalist party, steeped in violence for many years as a result of the 1969-94 troubles in Northern Ireland and their spillover into Britain and the rest of Ireland. No less than 31 per cent of young people voted for Sinn Fein. Like many of their counterparts in Britain, they are less idealistic than angry or cynical, showing a readiness to be intolerant of dissenting views. The two legacy parties between them got little more than one-quarter of the youth vote and were crushed in Dublin – which now comprises one-third of the national electorate.

The result is not lacking in irony. Under Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Fein’s middle-class and privately-educated leader, a party previously un-interested in economics delivered an anti-austerity message and spoke up for struggling citizens, nearly ten thousand of whom are homeless a four-fold increase since 2014. The party’s image as a redoubt for ex-gunmen was successfully shelved as it promised to transform Ireland if given the chance to be in government for the first time in the almost century-long history of the Irish state.

Varadkar had tried to stay in contention by snatching the  Republicans’ anti-British rhetoric, claiming in recent weeks that Britain had never understood Ireland and that it was now a small country. But to no avail.

It will be hard to exclude Sinn Fein from power for much longer.  An emergency coalition between FG and FF is anticipated by some but it is likely that the poverty of vision for solving the problems of a country that they both ran badly in tandem during previous generations, will merely hasten their decline.

Will a Sinn Fein wielding influence and power complicate Britain’s departure from the EU? This is unlikely.  Sinn Fein is handicapped by its violent associations. It lacks the clout of its domestic rivals in Brussels. It is likely to continue Varadkar’s ultra-legalistic approach to Irish border issues and may well soon cause Messrs Barnier and Tusk in Brussels to regret ever having whipped-up British-Irish territorial issues in a bid to impede Brexit. If Irish matters cease to have the prominence in the EU-British stand-off over Brexit, then it will hardly be a surprise.

It was not so long ago that thrilled by the global exposure Irish writer Fintan O’Toole obtained for his baiting of ‘backward’ and ‘nativist’ Britain, the academics, journalists and senior bureaucrats driving elite liberal opinion predicted an eclipse of British power. There would be a new asymetric power relationship with Ireland enjoying the geopolitical sway it had never exercised since before the Norman conquest.

The result of this election means Ireland’s voice in the world is likely to grow fainter as its politics grow introspective and perhaps rancorous. Sinn Fein’s rise will place Unionists in Northern Ireland, unhappy about Brexit, on their guard. It will likely increase Sinn Fein demand for a poll to see if there is now a majority in Northern Ireland for joining the Irish Republic.

The rise of a party some of whose elected members were closely involved with the longest insurgent terrorist campaign seen anywhere in Europe since 1945, is also likely to put a damper on Scottish independence. Sinn Fein has been courted by the SNP.  Mary Lou McDonald’s first interview outside Ireland after she became leader of Sinn Fein was with Alex Salmond on his regular programme on the Russia Today platform.  As recently as 7 January, a Sinn Fein delegation met Ian Blackford MP and parliamentary colleagues to discuss stepping up co-operation.

The triumph of nationalist hardliners in Ireland, albeit on a programme of domestic reform, is likely to place on their guard at least some Scots who have been flirting with independence because of their unhappiness with Brexit.  Fear of a fall-out from Irish troubles was a significant factor in Scottish politics in the last one-third of the twentieth century. The SNP’s courting of Irish nationalists has been essentially opportunistic and it is not hard to envisage a party in mounting trouble because of its low standards of governance, ditching any attempt to adapt the politics of Ulsterisation to Scotland.

The SNP is in the position of the beleaguered Irish establishment. It has failed to look after the interests of those who voted for it as the sorry state of the Scottish health service and other public services reveal. I suspect that the revelations about the seedy nature of its rule which made headlines far beyond Scotland during the final days of the Irish election campaign are likely to diminish its interests in matters Irish as it fights for its own survival. 

Overall, this is the cautionary tale of the leader of a small European country with abundant economic problems and a poor record of governance who was encouraged by powerful figures in the EU to take an aggressive stance towards its neighbour Britain as it sought to leave the EU. 

Perhaps the only kind thing that can be said of the EU in this sorry episode is that because it embarked upon its own state-building role after the worst of the Northern' Ireland conflict , it has no instinct that preserving British-Irish understanding might almost be as important as maintaining Franco-German understanding.

Tom Gallagher is a retired political scientist who divided his time between Cumbria and Scotland. His profile of the SNP, Scotland Now: A Warning to the World was published in 2016.

His twitter account is @cultfree54

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