With the schools back, the evenings longer, and summer giving way to autumn, focus is switching to the resumption of the Dáil and to what the political environment will be like over the coming months. Are we facing a winter of discontent or are the dark skies starting to give way to brighter days?
Already we have had the announcement of two by-elections for October 10 and we face up to six referendums early next year - the headline issue being a proposal to introduce same sex marriage. However for all the talk of referenda over the coming months, Insider sees the most crucial referenda of all as being only a week away!
All eyes on Edinburgh
It has slipped somewhat under the radar but the referendum on Scottish independence next Thursday has the potential to radically impact on, or even reshape, Irish politics over the next few years. This is of course first and foremost a matter for the Scots but we cannot have our heads in the sand and ignore the potential impact on this country.
The possibility that Scottish voters may choose to end the 300-year union with England next week is a stark prospect and one that probably would have been unthinkable until recently. That in itself should capture people’s attention.
So what are the implications? The first and most immediate concern would be how the financial markets would react to a yes vote and the uncertainty and instability that would arise. Ireland is still in a vulnerable position and would not welcome another financial crisis, even if it would dissipate after the initial shock. Leaving aside the more immediate impact however there are potentially some interesting medium/long-term implications.
The first thing to note is that a yes vote, or even a rejection of independence is likely to impact significantly on Ireland.
Even if Scotland rejects independence it is evident the Scots will gain significant additional autonomy from Westminster. So the question arises as to whether Scotland will emerge as a serious and direct rival to Ireland for inward investment and might look to compete in areas such as corporation tax rates.
The counter-argument is that an independent Scotland could become an important partner and ally for Ireland, something first minister Alex Salmond has been emphasising.
Another point commentators have speculated upon is the impact a no vote might have on Northern Ireland, most specifically on unionists, who would likely be traumatised. Some have speculated it may lead to a demand for a poll on Irish reunification. That is more of a medium-term possibility though. A more immediate implication would be the likelihood of additional powers being devolved to Northern Ireland, as well as to Wales, and some English regions. A more balanced UK is likely to be a positive development for Ireland.
Perhaps the most important impact would be how the result feeds through to the other big referendum promised in the UK - the referendum on EU membership.
Insider feels the Irish political establishment has under-estimated how big an issue this is in the UK and how real the threat of withdrawal is. In the event of a Scottish vote for independence, does withdrawal become more likely? Some commentators point to Euroscepticism as being more of an English as opposed to a British phenomenon (with Scots being far warmer towards Europe ) and that a slimmed down UK will be more likely to head for the exit door. It is not that Scottish votes will tip the balance – Scots currently represent less than 10 per cent of the UK population – but rather that the outlook of the new reduced UK will alter as the divergence of opinion that needs to be catered for will be greatly reduced. This would have profound implications for Ireland.
If the Scots reject independence it will only be by a narrow margin and after giving the UK political establishment a hell of a fright. Will a relieved (chastened even ) British establishment ease off on some of the harsh rhetoric – not only on Europe but on immigration and privatisation – that is anathema to most Scots? It might also be argued that a vote for independence would stun the British establishment so much as to cause them to ease off for a while for fear of alienating other regions of the UK.
Either way this referendum will impact heavily on the UK in the coming years and in light of the very strong links between the two countries will in turn impact on Ireland. This is potentially far more significant than any negotiations with the EU or IMF in the coming months!
Elections at home
Having barely recovered from the excitement of the local and European elections, political anoraks now have two by-elections to look forward to in October as Dublin SW and Roscommon/South Leitrim go to the polls.
The latter will be of especial interest to people in Galway as Roscommon is to be merged with parts of Galway East to form a new Roscommon/Galway constituency at the next General Election. Watching especially closely will be FFers in Galway East.
Speculation continues, despite protestations to the contrary, that Fianna Fáil TD Michael Kitt will contest this constituency next time, leaving Galway East to Colm Keaveney and Gerry Finnerty. A win for the party’s candidate Ivan Connaughton (the favourite ) would likely close off this avenue, meaning a dogfight for nominations in the truncated Galway East.
Anger over health services – a bone of contention in Roscommon for 25 years and an issue that cost FG its TD in the area – means a very difficult outing for the Government parties. FG polled abysmally in the local elections in Roscommon and Labour Senator John Kelly is threatening not to run. A Government victory is unlikely but will people reward FF with a stunning victory? It will be a big ask, so watch out for an Independent such as John McDermott and even SF.
We then have a range of plebiscites to look forward to next spring. The referendum on same-sex marriage will dominate the headlines – however history shows us that the Government might in fact have a much tougher time getting some of the proposals relating to the political system and administration such as changing the voting age or making changes to the presidency passed.
On first reading, the result of these referendums should not have too great an impact on the Government’s standing. A defeat in some of them would be embarrassing but could be overcome. A yes vote would be unlikely to lead to any reward. Insider would largely agree with this analysis but suggests that if (as seems likely ) the Government can carry the referendum on same-sex marriage it could win positive headlines as it would be considered a notable achievement – in most cases around the globe where this has been introduced it has been done by legislation and not by a public vote.
Selection headaches and mundane matters
We may be within 12 months of a general election, so we are likely to see parties holding selections conventions over the coming months. We have already discussed the potential drama for FF in Galway East but will Peter Keane join Éamon Ó Cuív on the ticket in Galway West? Will John O’Mahoney or Hildegarde Naughten work their way onto the Galway West FG ticket or will the Walsh-Kyne line-up get a clear run? There will be plenty of excitement all round.
For all the excitement these contests will generate, the real focus for the Government will be on economic matters. A less stringent budget than recent years appears to be on the cards for October. This will be a welcome reprieve for the Government (not to mention an austerity-weary electorate ) but Insider would caution them not to inflate expectations. For all the talk of improvements in the public finances we are still looking at more budgetary tightening, not giveaways.
With the General Election on the horizon much focus will be on whether the economy is improving. Some of the statistics are encouraging – a reduction in unemployment, consumer confidence rising a little, as well as the aforementioned improvement in the public finances – but on the other hand emigration remains high and many people still do not get any sense of a recovery. One thing that brought this home to Insider last Friday evening was the sight of All-Ireland hurling final tickets going on general sale, having not sold out in the two participating counties.
When Insider commented on how unusual this was, the response he got was that a combination of high prices and “bar the players there’s nobody between the ages of 20 and 30 left in the country”, was quite damning. In the west we know what that means and are all too familiar with this trend over many years.
Insider hopes that over the course of what promises to be a dramatic autumn we will at least all start to feel a recovery.