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Brexit

Ireland to hold first post-Brexit elections

Election poster for incumbent Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar in Dublin
Election poster for incumbent Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar in Dublin RFI/Jan van der Made

Ireland votes in a general election on 8 February, just one week after neighboring Britain’s departure from the European Union. RFI looks at how Brexit affects the Irish political landscape and Ireland’s position within the EU 27.

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The two parties that have dominated Ireland’s political landscape over the past decades, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, are being upset by the all-Ireland party Sinn Fein.

Opinion polls show Sinn Fein level at 24 percent with Fianna Fail after an 11-point surge, while current Prime Minister Leo Varadkar’s Fine Gael is trailing at 21 percent.

Sinn Fein’s sudden gains may be inspired by its strong campaign on housing and promises to improve the health care system.

“But Brexit has played a part,” says Harry Browne, senior lecturer in the School of Media at the Technological University of Dublin.

Eliminate the border

“There is a sense that this may be a time for massive change in the UK: Scotland may be leaving, and Northern Ireland is potentially in an unusual position."

“Sinn Fein, an all-Ireland party that has the position to eliminate the border as soon as possible, appears to be thriving in this election,” he says.

Harry Browne, senior lecturer in the School of Media at the Technological University of Dublin.
Harry Browne, senior lecturer in the School of Media at the Technological University of Dublin. RFI/Jan van der Made

“They are the one party that consistently fought against the border over the years, first literally and then figuratively in the 25 years since the peace process.”

Talk in the north of Ireland that Brexit may speed up Irish reunification “makes the Irish establishment very nervous, that there is a new urgency around the idea of, for the first time a genuinely independent Ireland,” he says.

Civil war parties

During the 1969-1998 civil war period in Northern Ireland, a period Irish euphemistically refer to as “The Troubles”, Sinn Fein was known as “the political wing of the Irish Republican Army”.

But after the Good Friday Agreements, the party turned into a voice for the working class in the Republic of Ireland, while in the north, it is the largest nationalist party across the board.

The General Post Office in Dublin, scene of the 1916 Easter Rising which eventually led to Irish independence.
The General Post Office in Dublin, scene of the 1916 Easter Rising which eventually led to Irish independence. RFI/Jan van der Made

Today’s Irish newspapers still refer to the other two parties, Fine Gail and Fianna Fail, as the “civil war parties”, emerging from the conflict of 1919-1921.

Fine Gail was ready to make a treaty with England that allowed for the border and gave Ireland status of a dominion rather than a full republic, and Fianna Fail came out of the opposition to that.

Both developed into centrist parties and have ruled Ireland in different coalitions over the past 30 years, dividing the power between them, for now.

Important factor

Meanwhile, the Brexit situation gave Ireland the idea that its position within the EU was strengthened. But is this justified?

“There is the sense that Ireland pushes above its weight, that Ireland is more powerful than you would expect from a country with four and a half million people, precisely because it finds itself at the front line of this conflict with the UK,” making Ireland a microcosm for all of the EU’s difficulties with London, Browne says.

The situation adds to the sense that “the European question surrounding Brexit became really an Irish question. And it continues to be an Irish question this year,” as discussions on the details of the UK’s “Withdrawal Agreement” get underway.

Election poster for Sinn Fein candidate Mary Lou McDonald in Dublin
Election poster for Sinn Fein candidate Mary Lou McDonald in Dublin RFI/Jan van der Made

But people worry that Europe will run out of patience with Ireland, “that we won’t have the same kind of influence in this upcoming year of negotiations towards new arrangements with the UK than we’ve had over the last two years, where it seemed that Europe was standing firm with Ireland,” he says.

 

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