How the Irish people decide to vote and run their own country is something which Unionists have always refused to interfere in or seek to influence. We made no comment when the Irish government decided to hold a referendum on abortion or when the Irish people decided that they wanted to legislate for the killing of unborn babies even though it was a policy which the majority in NI, both unionists and nationalists, opposed. Similarly, we made no comment during the recent election campaign in the Republic of Ireland (RoI) even though the outcome was likely to have an impact on Northern Ireland and the relationship between NI and our neighbour.
The result was a surprise to commentators and politicians. Indeed, Sinn Fein themselves did not expect this outcome otherwise they would have fielded far more candidates and got them elected. No one expected Sinn Fein, who had taken a hammering in the local and European elections, to finish up with the highest number of votes.
Leo Varadkar, the Prime Minister, has only himself to blame. While he was preening himself in European capitals, boasting that he was the man who clipped the wings of Britain’s Brexit vote, and engaging in Brit bashing at home to try and compete with Sinn Fein, he neglected the domestic economic and social problems which should be the priority for any government. The result was the electorate punishing the two main parties for this neglect by supporting Sinn Fein who, much like Corbyn promised free everything without any indication of where the money was coming from.
It is going to be difficult to form a government. The parliamentary arithmetic indicates that it will require at least a three-party coalition to achieve a majority. It is unlikely that such a government will last for any length of time so the RoI is in for a period of political instability followed by another election. For Sinn Fein this presents a dilemma. Do they try to get into government and quickly demonstrate that their high spending Chavez type policies are undeliverable? Or do they try to cover up their economic incompetence with republican rhetoric about a united Ireland, which always helps to calm their hard-core vote when they get caught out on the fairy stories they sell to their most gullible followers. This will resurrect unionist fears in NI and will act as a reminder of the aggressive and disgraceful sectarian behaviour of successive governments of the RoI during the IRA terrorist campaign, which was kept alive by the unwillingness of the RoI to lend support to the British Government in tackling the security situation.
On the other hand, Sinn Fein seem to be preparing the ground to ensure that they don’t get into government and are able to sit outside the shambles which is likely to result with any coalition. This will enable them to do what they do best. Present themselves as victims of the political establishment, excluded because their faces don’t fit, discriminated against and of course have totally clean hands over the hard economic decisions which have to be taken. This will put them in a position to capitalise electorally when the next election takes place.
Whatever the outcome, the election result will have some impact on NI. First, it is likely to increase Sinn Fein’s demands for a border poll even though what happens in the Republic has no impact on the legal position of a border poll in NI. The Belfast agreement is clear on this. The trigger for a border poll is a clear indication that there is a desire for change in the constitutional position of NI. Given that the last general election saw the total nationalist and republican vote fall from 42% to 37%, Northern Irish opinion seems to be moving against a united Ireland.
Second, the election result in the RoI could have implications for the newly formed NI Assembly. If Sinn Fein decide to flex their muscles, in light of the electoral success in the RoI, it could jeopardise the five-party compulsory coalition in the Assembly. On the other hand, the prospect of having to face another election in the RoI in the near future might persuade them that it would not be wise to be seen as government wreckers in NI. There are some signs that this might be their approach. Already, the Sinn Fein Finance Minister has toned down his demands for more money and seems to be prepared to bring forward a budget based on the block grant allocated from Westminster. He is now saying that the budget gap is £600m instead of £5bn, and he knows that he will get something close to this in the forthcoming budget announcement. So, despite earlier threats, it seems Sinn Fein are not going to bring the Assembly down on the issue of money.
The third implication of the election is that the Irish government, urged on by Sinn Fein whether they are in or out of government, are likely to cause further difficulties in the ongoing Brexit negotiations. They are certainly going to demand the most stringent application of the proposed checks on trade between NI and GB contained in the Withdrawal Agreement, at a time when our Prime Minister is insisting that the UK will take the most liberal interpretation of how they should be applied. Ireland will once again lead the charge for any trade agreement that limits the UK’s freedom on regulations, customs arrangements and trade deals with other countries so setting themselves at loggerheads with the British Prime Minister. Given Boris Johnson’s parliamentary majority, and his need to deliver a proper Brexit, he can ignore them if he chooses but this is likely to further strain Anglo/Irish relationships. However, he must not let this limit his hands in negotiations and he should always remember that in economic terms, Ireland needs Britain more than it needs the EU.
As a Unionist, I am indifferent as to whether Sinn Fein form part of a future government in the RoI but as someone who wants to see the Irish economy prosper, because a rich neighbour is beneficial to our economy, I would fear for the economic wellbeing of the Irish economy if a bunch of Corbynites with balaclavas were to gain any real influence over economic policy south of the border.