With Brexit finally behind us, what is next for the EU? In Ireland at least, it is a return to politics as usual. Once it was clear that Boris Johnson had won a large majority in last year’s UK general election and that the January 31st Brexit date would stand, the question for Ireland was when the general election be held. In mid-January, the Irish premier (the Taoiseach) announced that the election would be on Saturday, February 8 2020 – the first Saturday general election since the Westminster election of 1918. The 1918 election was an historic election for Ireland, as it saw the enacting of the first Dáil (Irish parliament) when two thirds of the winning candidates refused to take their seats in Westminster and instead opted to hold seats in the newly established Dáil Éireann.
After almost four years of Brexit debates, one might have thought Brexit would dominate the general election campaign in Ireland. Irish diplomats certainly won plaudits for their handling of Brexit from the get-go, and this might have been expected to reflect well on the Fine Gael government among voters. It seemingly did when Brexit was still a live issue, with approval ratings of the government’s handling of Brexit at 60% in October 2019. But with Brexit out of the news for now, the focus has returned to domestic issues. With campaigning in the last few days this is unlikely to change, leaving housing, homelessness, and health as the defining features of this general election. In a country with a strong economy, housing and health are top among voter’s concerns. With over 9,000 people in emergency accommodation in December 2019, let alone the number of people staying with family and friends who are not included in those statistics, homelessness and access to affordable and adequate housing is a pressing issue across Ireland. Commentators also suggest this, and the health crisis, may be what are pushing this to be an “election of change.” The most recent poll shows a large majority of voters expressing a preference for change with Sinn Féin leading voter’s preferences for the Dáil for the first time since independence. With Sinn Féin running far fewer candidates than Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil, it is questionable if the poll will convert into seats on the day.
So what does this mean for Ireland and Brexit? Had the election been held closer to the end of the transition period, who knows whether Brexit might have had more of an impact on the electorate. But for now, at least, the focus is squarely on the domestic. What is less clear is what sort of coalition government will result from the election, or will there be another confidence and supply type arrangement to get the country through the next stage of Brexit negotiations? Only time will tell.