Changes in the political environment have occurred in the past eighteen months with almost bewildering frequency, in many cases requiring radical reassessment of where we stand.
This week, a new Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is due to be elected. Our reaction, regardless of any political affiliations, should be to wish him well, as the country faces formidable challenges, and particularly since the basis on which the Government is formed allows for many constructive inputs. The possibility of an early election is likely to have receded as too much of a gamble, there being no guarantee that it would produce a fundamental change or a more decisive result.
The advent of Leo Varadkar is being fitted into the dominant media narrative of the present time, another step forward for a liberal secular Ireland in the process of side-lining religious values from the public sphere. Why, in the current context, separation of Church and State is an assumed good, rather than, where appropriate, continuing co-operation between Church and State, is never explained. Varadkar has, however, said that he would like to see his party become a warm house for social conservatives, which has not been the perception in recent years. A positive side-effect of his election will be the opportunity to strengthen Irish-Indian relations, including trade.
The outgoing Taoiseach Enda Kenny has at least four substantial achievements to his credit. Ably assisted by the outgoing Finance Minister Michael Noonan and the Labour Party, the most important was to see through the programme that put the Irish economy back on its feet, even if further repairs are badly needed. This did involve for both parties a substantial political cost. Secondly, he led a government for five years that restored stability, and then in very difficult circumstances put together a government that so far has not jeopardized hard-won progress, and that stakes out new ground in managing a complex and indecisive election result that may well recur.
Thirdly, Enda Kenny managed the Centenary Commemoration Programme in a way that satisfied nearly everyone and made people proud of our country, with sensitivity, a spirit of inclusion, but without triumphalism. Fourthly, he provided good leadership with a sure touch in the lead-in to the opening of Brexit negotiations. Confirmation of Northern Ireland’s EU status in the event of unity was valuable. The new Taoiseach will have to take personal charge of these negotiations, as only he will have access to fellow European leaders.
In the recent British election, the British Prime Minister Theresa May sought a mandate for a hard Brexit, and failed to obtain it. The old precept ‘keep calm and carry on’ is not going to work. She is now essentially a caretaker Prime Minister, as British Conservatives will not want to fight another election under her leadership. Dependence on what, taking a leaf out of the Irish political book, is called a ‘confidence and supply arrangement’ with the DUP is unlikely, initially at least, to enthuse the British public, most of whom know precious little about that party. Under the Good Friday Agreement, the British Government is committed to exercising its sovereign jurisdiction in Northern Ireland ‘with rigorous impartiality’, and must avoid taking sides on partisan issues.
There are two potential positives. The DUP, unlike in the past, do not want a hard border. Secondly, they are likely to want to mitigate the financial and economic impact of Brexit in a way that could benefit the whole community. If they are wise, they will try to pin down commitments that will outlast temporary political arrangements. A new Executive would strengthen the hand of Northern Ireland and confidence in the peace process.
For the first time, the DUP will have a central role in sustaining a UK government, and this will require their close attention. It should not affect their willingness to restore the Northern power-sharing institutions. The attitude of Sinn Féin is equally important. The less compromising attitude to Stormont has paid off for Sinn Féin handsomely in two elections this year, but has produced an equal and opposite reaction on the unionist side, which has also consolidated the DUP’s position.
One positive by-product of Sinn Féin’s strength is that it greatly reduces their exposed flank. In recent weeks, two of the dissident armed factions have announced that they intend to wind up their activities. Sadly, parties representing more the middle ground, and to whom a lot of political progress achieved to date is owed, the UUP, SDLP and Alliance, have again been squeezed.
Political realism is required. A second Scottish independence referendum is off the agenda, and Scotland is not going to break up the UK any time soon. There is no evidence of any significant shift of opinion towards a united Ireland that would justify a border poll. Demanding special EU status for Northern Ireland is all too often a transparent attempt to loosen the Union. A co-operative approach will be more beneficial than a confrontational one.
It is difficult to assess at this stage the effect of the election on the Brexit negotiations. Those in Britain who want a more flexible approach will be emboldened. Younger voters were a force in the election that they were not in last year’s referendum. In a remarkable letter published in the Times (5 June), former cabinet secretary under Margaret Thatcher, Lord Armstrong, who was chief British negotiator of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, warned that it was young people who would pay the price of Brexit. Where were the leaders, he asked, who had the courage to say, not that the decision had been taken and must be proceeded with, but “we are on the verge of making a dire historic mistake; let’s put it right before it’s too late”?
Seen in the context of the Anglo-sphere, Ireland is wedged between two powers, the US and Britain, that temporarily succumbed to populism and have gone off the rails politically. Fortunately, the Republic remains a committed member of an EU that is recovering politically and economically.