Brexit, elections, and economic downturns - welcome to autumn/winter 2019

UK exit from the EU will dominate all aspects of politics in Ireland, as well as in Britain

Brexit will dominate Irish politics for the coming months.

Brexit will dominate Irish politics for the coming months.

September heralds the resumption of political activity with party think-ins and shadow boxing between the various parties preceding the return of the Dáil in the middle of the month.

This year however August had not even ended when politics returned centre-stage as the dramatic, some would say unbelievable, events in Britain and their impact on this country dominated the headlines.

Over the past few years, despite the sense of going around in circles with no resolution in sight, the prospect of a no deal Brexit seemed remote. However, since the European elections and change in the leadership of the Tory party, the threat has loomed large and is now a stark possibility - some would say probability. The Tories are facing something of an existential threat and the need to outflank the Brexit Party is taking priority over any economic analysis of the situation.

British politics is currently very fluid and volatile and we will probably see much ebbing and flowing in the coming weeks with the wildcard of a general election now also appearing to be on the cards. The tension will be felt acutely in Ireland and will dominate political discourse - albeit one of its impacts may be to tone down traditional hostilities between the parties. With the Irish backstop at the heart of the dispute between the EU and UK, the spotlight on the Irish Government will be particularly intense and the Government will dread the prospect of coming under pressure to make concessions in the event that a pathway opens up to a deal.

Economic challenges

Outside the implications for the political system, Brexit may also impact the economy and agriculture. The economy has performed well in recent years but there are some straws in the wind indicating a slowdown in growth may be manifesting itself during the third quarter of the year. Brexit uncertainties are partly to blame and if the whole thing implodes in the coming weeks, then the impact on the economy could be severe. This will create significant societal and political challenges. These will be exacerbated by worries over a US/China trade war and some poor data coming out of Germany during the summer.

One sight that FG in particular will not have welcomed is that of farmers protesting, be it the sight of EU Commissioner Phil Hogan coming under fire over the so-called Mercusor trade deal that farmers claim will see cheap Brazilian beef flood the European market; the calls for Minister Michael Creed to stay away from the Tullamore Show; or the ongoing beef protest at meat processing plants. Whatever angst farmers are feeling about these issues could be completely overshadowed by the fallout of a no-deal Brexit which would be a nightmare for farmers on both sides of the border.

Northern stalemate

On the matter of the border, even if the Brexit situation had not escalated, things were not good in the North with the Assembly still suspended and little sign of talks to restore it resuming in any meaningful way. Relations between the parties and communities are at a low ebb, as are relations between the Irish and British governments, exacerbated by Brexit tensions. It may not be an exaggeration to say that the situation is the bleakest it has been since the ceasefires and Good Friday Agreement.

As if all of this was not enough, also thrown into the mix is the prospect of impending electoral combat in the Republic, firstly in the shape of four by-elections later this year and subsequently a general election probably early next year. All of the parties will therefore be on an election footing while simultaneously trying to manage the challenges wrought by Brexit and from elsewhere.

Fine Gael – on a knife-edge

FG have had a difficult summer. After a mixed day at the polls in May – a strong European election but a more modest local election that once again saw it trail Fianna Fáil – the party has spent the summer engaged in some unseemly infighting in a number of constituencies such as Waterford, Sligo/Leitrim, and Dun Laoghaire, involving party luminaries such as John Deasy and Maria Bailey, whose ‘swing-gate’ escapade shows no sign of abating.

The aforementioned run-ins with the farming community will also have caused some alarm on top of the challenges of managing the increasingly fraught Brexit situation, not to mention the seemingly never-ending difficulties in health and housing. Nevertheless, FG, despite falling slightly behind FF in the polls is well positioned to at least compete to lead the next government and will hope a craving for stability and continuity will take hold among the electorate.

Fianna Fáil – looking forward

FF made progress in the local elections, finally breaking through that 25 per cent ceiling it had endured for the past decade - albeit the gains were modest overall. As Insider has previously noted, FF’s poor performance in the European elections possibly highlights the lack of firepower in its front ranks, with the party lacking the star names, or at least the inability, to afford to lose them to Europe.

This could be a weakness in any general election campaign, in particular as FF is likely to come under greater scrutiny next time out as it will be the first time since 2007 that it will be regarded as being seriously in the hunt for government (notwithstanding it made something of a late blindside run to get into contention in 2016 after being significantly underestimated ).

Party leader Micheál Martin and his front bench have been making overtures and working hard at building relations with other Opposition parties. The race for government is an open one, and for now, FF will simply be pleased to be in contention when the starting gun is sounded.

Sinn Féin – challenges North and South

SF had a difficult day in May and further challenges now present themselves with the retirements of long-standing party stalwarts such as Gerry Adams and Martin Ferris. The focus is now on settling the ship, regrouping, and rebuilding in places such as the Galway constituencies where the party was wiped out.

After empirical gains in recent elections, the party will be pleased to simply consolidate or even minimise losses next time out. A particularly interesting aspect of that election will be the contest between SF and the TLA (Greens/Soc Dems/Labour ). Will we see a move away from SF towards those parties or can SF hold them off? Also, are we likely to see friendlier relations between the constituent parts of the TLA that might in particular see a re-emergence of the traditionally strong transfers between Labour and the Greens, thereby making SF’s challenge all the greater?

The party will also face a challenge in the North. On the face of it the party is in a strong position there and better placed to hold its own, but Brexit and the continued suspension of the Assembly will bring challenges. The news that the party’s high profile Upper Bann MLA John O’Dowd is to challenge Michelle O’Neill for the position of vice-president may also indicate some level of unease in the ranks.

The TLA – moving centre-stage?

The Green Party is busily working out how to convert its strong performance in May into Dáil seats. The party's transfer-friendliness should aid its cause while its openness to coalition makes it attractive for FF and FG and makes participation in the next government a real possibility.

The Green advance hinders Labour’s prospects of making its own resurgence, although co-operation between the parties, in particular if the aforementioned strong transfers between them can be resurrected could aid both. Labour will continue to take a niche approach, focussing on a number of target seats mainly in Dublin and the southeast.

The Social Democrats too will be taking a targeted approach focusing on maybe five or six constituencies with a view to adding to the seats held by its co-leaders Catherine Murphy and Róisín Shortall. The party would be especially keen to have some of its younger candidates come to the fore. The big question then is will the TLA leverage the strengths of its component parts with a view to getting a strong voice in the next government if the numbers allow it.

The Independents – holding up

sean canney

While People Before Profit suffered losses in the local elections, and Renua and Aontú made little impact, the pure Independents held their own. That was a fine achievement coming off their strong showing in 2014 and in light of gains made by other parties.

It suggests that, notwithstanding the challenges they will face - in particular if the narrative of it being a race between the big two parties to lead the Government takes hold - the likes of the community independents, be they in rural areas such as the Healy-Raes and Sean Canney [pictured above], or urban based TDs such as Finian McGrath and Catherine Connolly, will still have a strong voice in the next Dáil. With many of them having strong FF/FG heritage they are again likely to be in demand when talks over government formation get under way.

With much turbulence in the air, and an election to follow, it promises to be a lively autumn on the political front. Insider advises everyone to fasten their seatbelts.

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