Leo rides high in polls but may face much stormier seas ahead

Ireland’s Leo Varadkar: Record polls approval but 2018 will bring complex issues.

As we approach the two-year anniversary of Ireland’s Fine Gael-Independent Minority Government in May 2018, it’s easy to forget the expectations of many were that this agreement wouldn’t see out the end of 2016, let alone last the full term to 2018.

However, two prime ministers, two budgets and a number of not-insignificant political crises later, it remains in place.

With the potential finish line in sight next October in the form of the third and final budget of the Confidence & Supply Agreement we wanted to have a look at what is likely to dominate the Irish political calendar this year.

 

Brexit

Quelle surprise! Following the belated conclusion of the Phase One, divorce, negotiations in December, this year will see the Brexit negotiations between the UK and the EU begin Phase Two, the serious business of negotiating their future trading relationship.

Not unlike Phase One, the incommodious Irish border issue is likely to hang over the head of Phase Two talks. The essential question in 2018 will be whether the UK can come up with its proposed technical solutions that convince Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his EU counterparts sufficiently that the Irish border remains invisible.

If not, the only real options will either be to introduce a hard border across the island of Ireland, politically unacceptable to the Irish government, or for the UK to wholly align itself with single market and customs rules, politically unacceptable to the hard Brexiteers. This will require a lot of attention and focus from the Irish government.

 

This year will see the Brexit negotiations between the UK and the EU begin Phase Two

 

In addition to this, the challenge for Leo Varadkar will be to market Ireland more aggressively to foreign firms and foreign countries. Brexit remains an opportunity for Ireland to attract foreign direct investment from organisations forced to leave the City of London, and while Ireland has fared relatively well with financial services investments, government must now shift its concentration to the professional services and financial technology sectors, which are expected to announce plans in the coming months.

 

The Eighth Amendment

In the next six months, Ireland will hold a referendum on one of the most divisive issues in Irish society, repealing the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution; a referendum on the introduction of abortion.

A Dáil committee on the issue recommended in late 2017 the introduction of legal abortion on demand up to 12 weeks. While the Government has agreed that the Eighth Amendment should be repealed and replaced with new text in the Constitution to allow the Oireachtas (Parliament) to set laws.

The challenge that this issue will present across the political spectrum has been demonstrated within the Fianna Fáil party in recent weeks, with leader Micheál Martin announcing his support of a repeal to the decries of many of his backbenchers. In addition to this, several high-profile Ministers within Government have highlighted concerns also.

 

General Election?

The ‘Confidence & Supply’ Agreement signed between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil provided for the support of the Government for three budgets, the third of which is fast approaching. So, we’re heading to the polls in late 2018/early 2019?

Not so simple.

According to the most recent Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll, Leo Varadkar’s approval rating is up seven points to 60per cent, the highest level for any Taoiseach since 2007, just before the economic crash. Corresponding to Varadkar’s surge, satisfaction with the government has risen three points to 44 per cent, the highest since Fine Gael came to power in the Government seven years ago.

However, while all signs would seem to point to a potential victory in an election for Leo Varadkar, he will be more than aware that circumstances can change drastically in the course of a general election, as his UK counterpart Theresa May found to her cost last year.

As for Fianna Fáil, while the party is in a strong position in opposition in terms of policy direction, Mr Martin has so far failed to turn this into a rise in popularity among the general public. Added to this, he is facing the pressure of an internal battle with his party colleagues over his recent U-turn on the Eighth Amendment.

 

Leo Varadkar’s approval rating is up seven points to 60per cent

 

In response, Mr Martin will likely seek to reshuffle his front bench spokespeople in 2018, as he looks to appease members, but also to rejuvenate the appearance and approach of the party.

Therefore, while the possibility of Fianna Fáil causing a snap general election in 2018 is unlikely, the party will be actively seeking to capitalise on any exposed weaknesses in government, and will pursue opportunistic moments to withdraw their support and force an election.

 

Northern Ireland

It is now over one year since the power sharing executive in Northern Ireland collapsed after Sinn Féin walked out on government, citing a number of key issues with their partners the DUP. A fresh round of talks was initiated following the appointment of new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Karen Bradley in recent weeks.

Leading those talks on the Sinn Féin side will be a new party president, following the announcement in November 2017 by Gerry Adams, one of the most divisive figures in European politics, that he would step aside after 34 years in the position.

Deputy Leader Mary Lou McDonald assumed the leadership of Sinn Féin at the party’s Árd Fheis on 10th February, as the only candidate.

Unlike Adams, the impressive media performer McDonald, who is unencumbered by involvement in the Troubles, now has an opportunity to take Sinn Féin in a new direction and appeal to new voters, alongside the party’s leader north of the border, Michelle O’Neill, who took office last year.

 

Presidential Election

The repeal referendum may not be the only time that Ireland goes to a polling station this year, although the other contest, a potential presidential election, is likely to be a less politically fraught affair.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will have to make a decision by the summer on whether to put candidates forward or not.

There has been speculations that the incumbent, Michael D Higgins, would be returned unopposed if he seeks a second term. He has yet to confirm this, but all the signs are that he has grown accustomed to the grandeur of the office and he is a popular President. His term comes to an end in November and the election has to be held in that month at the latest.

 

Conclusion

Like 2017, the coming year poses a series of significant political pitfalls around which Government will be forced to navigate.

While the ostensibly stubborn problems of health and housing will continue to haunt the Varadkar-led Government, the resumption of Brexit negotiations; the omnipresence of political instability and a general election, blended with a rejuvenating Sinn Féin under its new leadership; a referendum on one of the most contentious and potentially divisive issues in modern Irish politics; and the forthcoming presidential election, will all need to be carefully handled by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his administration.