Expect plenty political ‘seat of the pants’ moments in 2018

Elections, the abortion referendum, homelessness, Brexit...

Many challenges - domestically and internationally - lie ahed for An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

Many challenges - domestically and internationally - lie ahed for An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

Insider is still recovering from what was a dramatic end to 2017 - the State narrowly avoiding a Christmas election; Ireland being at the centre of the standoff at the end of Phase 1 of the Brexit negotiations; and locally a SF implosion in Galway West. It was a whirlwind few weeks, and a period that offered wildly contrasting fortunes for the main political players. The Christmas break was badly needed by all.

The one question Insider keeps being asked is will we have a General Election in 2018. When one was narrowly averted before Christmas there was a sense of inevitability one would shortly follow – it was almost like Christmas 2010 all over again. Things have since settled down and there are even some suggestions that the intense interaction between FF and FG in order to diffuse the controversy around former tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald strengthened the ‘confidence and supply arrangement’ between the two parties.

Talk has now turned to the election not happening until late 2018 or perhaps even 2019. However this ignores the lack of trust between the two parties as well as the tendency for apparently minor issues to mushroom into something bigger and stretch the agreement between FG and FF (even if an election has to date been avoided ).

Perhaps contrary to the conventional wisdom, Insider feels that if there is to be an election in 2018, it may be more likely to take place in the early months of the year; he therefore urges all protagonists to be on high alert. As we head into late spring and early summer, the focus is likely to be on other heavy political issues, including an abortion referendum; these matters will keep the various parties occupied, so it is in these early months of the year, when there is something of a lull, that the risk of the Government falling will be heightened. On balance, to answer the question being posed, Insider feels the chances of an election in 2018 are probably 50/50.

Early election – what changes?

It has become accepted wisdom in recent times that an early election would change little, that the outcome would be a resumption of the arrangement between the two main parties with the only question being which of them would emerge on the government side. This ignores a reasonably consistent pattern in opinion polls during 2017 of the main two parties making some inroads at the expense of Independents and smaller parties. It also ignores a more recent trend of notable gains for FG, although people are somewhat sceptical about these gains which may have something to do with good PR from the recent Brexit negotiations.

Looking at the three Galway constituencies it is difficult to see many changes. The sitting TDs in both Galway East and Galway West seem certain of re-election and most of the excitement is likely to be centred on the Roscommon/Galway constituency (which will be more Galway-focused next time out ), with FG (possibly even with former Galway East TD Paul Connaughton jr ) targeting the seats of both FF’s Eugene Murphy and Independent Michael FitzMaurice. That said, there are five Independent TDs across the three constituencies so any move back to the bigger parties could produce surprise results.

A very interesting feature of any early contest will surely be the internal tussle between the two FG TDs in Galway West. Up until summer 2017 this was a battle Seán Kyne seemed well in control of; with longer service, a junior ministry, and then backing the right horse in the leadership race, he seemed to have the edge over Hildegarde Naughton.

Since then Dep Naughton has emerged as a real force, gaining a national profile and proving herself a shrewd operator. She is geographically well located and seems well placed to benefit from the type of voter demographic currently favourable to FG. The party should benefit from the intense competition between its two TDs and Galway West is no longer a problem constituency for it.

A presidential election?

Michael D 2017

Even if 2018 does not bring a general election, the polling stations are still likely to be busy. We have the promise of an abortion referendum, a strong likelihood of a presidential election, and possibly one or two other plebiscites on the matter of elected Mayors for Dublin and Cork (an interesting question on which Insider is open-minded ) in the offing.

It has gone a little under the radar but President Michael D Higgins is now in the final year of his term of office. Will he seek a second term? People seem genuinely unsure; he stated back in 2011 he would be a one-term president but lately seems to be hinting he is considering a second term. On balance Insider, while far from certain, expects him to retire but would comment that either scenario throws up some intriguing possibilities.

If President Higgins retires this will trigger a full-blown contest with the major parties all fielding candidates and possibly a few Independents entering the race. There are no obvious frontrunners and Insider is almost reminded of 1997, the last occasion a one-term President did not seek re-election, when Mary McAleese ended the year in the Áras despite barely getting a mention in the early months of the year.

Even a decision on his part to run again, and his likely re-election, may give rise to fascinating dynamics. A number of Independents, including Galwegians Michael FitzMaurice and Senator Gerard Craughwell have stated their intention to force a contest. Will this force SF into running a candidate? Then there is Labour; members would surely back their former TD and being on the winning side would give a party somewhat on the fringes of political discourse a fillip and invaluable PR; in the circumstances could FF and FG allow the party a free run in this regard?

Yet another abortion referendum

The Irish people have faced no fewer than five separate referendum questions on the topic of abortion since 1983. We are almost certainly to have our sixth referendum on the issue this year, probably in May/June. Previous referenda were generally focussed on restricting abortion and there was also a sense that there was not so much at stake, as the introduction of abortion was not on the cards. The dynamic is different on this occasion.

To say this has proven to be a contentious topic both here and globally is an understatement; expect zealotry on both sides with two implacably opposed viewpoints. Insider however notes that previous referenda on this question were marked by low turnout (or when it was held on the same day as the 1992 General Election by low interest ) and this may signal a large middle ground who are somewhat more sanguine and less emotional about the question.

It is early days yet but Insider senses the outcome of the referendum will come down to a conflict in many people’s minds between wanting to see the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, which they see as too restrictive and not belonging in the Constitution, and a desire not to see a liberal abortion regime. If, as seems likely, the Government accepts the recommendation of the Oireachtas Committee on the topic, can they persuade people that in order to achieve a more workable regime - for example to address the practicalities of giving rape victims access to abortion – this will have to entail allowing general, unrestricted, access for 12 weeks? This is likely to be the central question that will decide the outcome.

Papal visit

Pope Francis

It is also likely that Pope Francis will visit the country this summer. Some have tried to tie this in with the abortion referendum (in particular if that is delayed until the autumn ) but this will be a significant event regardless; as recent surveys show he is by far the most popular global leader in this country and it will be interesting to see what themes he touches on and whether he makes remarks that may embarrass the political establishment on matters such as homelessness, for instance.

Leaving aside the focus on some of the referendum questions, Insider expects the recurring themes in 2018 to again be health, homelessness and housing on the domestic front and on the international front, the continuing travails of Donald Trump, and of course Brexit. The matter of economic growth and stability may however also feature heavily in the backdrop this year.

Brexit

The Government was felt to have played its cards well during the first phase of Brexit negotiations and to have got as good an outcome as could be expected. Insider would not dispute this, but cautions that there is as much uncertainty as ever about the border question. In addition to committing to the non-imposition of a ‘hard border’ in Ireland, the British government reaffirmed its intention to leave the EU Single Market and Customs Union. Unfortunately, the two pledges are incompatible.

Insider wonders if Prime Minister Theresa May’s hands are somewhat tied on this matter. During the referendum campaign, Michael Gove famously quipped that people had had enough of experts. It is to the famous ‘man on the Clapham omnibus’ that we should therefore have regard; the ordinary British people who voted to leave will want to see tangible proof Britain has left the EU in a meaningful way. Unless control of borders and immigration is back in British hands it will be difficult to persuade them that this has happened; this however is incompatible with membership of the Single Market, which in turn makes it difficult to avoid a hard border. There is a long way to go on this yet.

On balance then Insider would rule nothing out in 2018 and, far from the drama in late 2017 having abated 2018, may bring even more ‘seat of the pants’ moments. Happy New Year!

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