Why the next few months could define Irish politics for years

Brexit, abortion referendum and party strategies will all alter the political landscape

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Those close to him maintain that by Christmas people will know exactly what he stands for.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Those close to him maintain that by Christmas people will know exactly what he stands for.

 

You might be slightly surprised, given the gearbox-grinding nature of our current Government apparatus, to hear that the next few months may shape our politics for years to come. It is entirely possible that by the time the Christmas stockings are being hung we will have a clear picture of the choices facing the country at the next election. In fact, it is certain we will.

It is not that we will have an election within months. That is unlikely to happen for a year or more.

It is because we are facing into a short window – between September and December – in which our attitudes to those who will seek to govern us, and the external factors that will buffet us, will take shape.

The first half of next year is likely to be dominated by preparations for the referendum on the Eighth Amendment, expected to take place in late spring or early summer. While all parties are preparing for a general election, the abortion referendum is the biggest obstacle to one being held by next summer.

Neither Fianna Fáil nor Fine Gael will want to go to the polls either in the weeks before or after such a divisive and emotional issue, and one which will divide both parties in two.

Fine Gael’s pitch will be an almost Reagan-esque, 'Morning in America'-style one

The run-up to the referendum, and then the campaign itself, will drown out other political debate.

It means the offers we will be sold at the next election will have to take shape by Christmas.

Brexit bill

We will also have a firm indication by then if Theresa May is persisting with her vision of a hard Brexit or is prepared to soften Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, the single biggest issue facing the economy.

The EU will also decide if enough progress has been made on Britain’s final Brexit bill to move on to negotiations about future trade, the key element for Ireland. If, by Christmas, goodwill on both sides has vanished, a rough and hard Brexit looms.

Some senior Government figures see this is as almost inevitable, and believe that the best thing for Ireland would be another UK general election to allow for a vote on a softer Brexit.

May’s disastrous performance and Jeremy Corbyn’s star turn in the last British election have upended the traditional view that the electorate’s choice is largely settled before a short campaign lasting a number of weeks, but the groundwork still must be done a long way out from polling day.

Despite some adverse comment about standing for people who get up early in the morning, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s inner circle is satisfied that the public – members of the public its wants to target, in any case – have reacted positively to his message.

Philosophy and vision

Expect more of this when he further outlines his governing philosophy and vision at a speech at his parliamentary party away-day in September.

Those close to Varadkar maintain that by Christmas people will know exactly what he stands for.

His approach will mean more for those who pay their share, such as his idea of a new system of social insurance by merging the Universal Social Charge and PRSI. Benefits are not seen as a bad thing per se, just as long as they benefit everyone, although it is acknowledged that there should be a safety net.

The thinking – to take one policy area as an example – is that childcare subsidies should benefit the parents who work overtime or seek promotion as much as those who are struggling to find work.

Fine Gael’s pitch will be an almost Reagan-esque, “Morning in America”-style one: the American dream for an Irish audience who want their children to have better opportunities than they did.

It will be squarely aimed at those who see themselves as middle-class, and those who want to be so.

Varadkar’s offer to his party was that he would make Fine Gael stand for something, because anything else is standing for nothing.

What political sense does it make to have an election just after you have agreed a budget?

But in doing so he will allow Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, Labour, the Social Democrats, the Greens and others to define themselves against him in varying shades of left on platforms of equality, fairness, and investment in services.

The likely targets will be the Government’s record on housing and health, and the potency of both issues could be seen even in the traditionally quiet August period this week.

Homeless children

Hospital waiting lists were again the focus of public debate, and stories of the health of homeless children deteriorating as they eat take-away food on the floors of their hotel rooms can be easily juxtaposed with the surging profits of a real estate investment fund which noted that a solution to the housing crisis is several years away and “the path of least resistance for prices and rents still remains on the upside”.

The sharpening dividing lines we will see open up in the months ahead – including Sinn Féin’s willingness to enter government, likely to be ratified by an ardfheis this year – may come into focus in autumn 2018 when Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will have to agree the final and most generous budget of their confidence-and-supply deal, with an expected €3.2 billion to spend.

A consequence of the divergence of the coming months could be a difficulty to agree a budget when there is relatively plenty to go around.

And, after all, what political sense does it make to have an election just after you have agreed a budget?

Better, perhaps, to offer the fruits of your definition as a clear choice to the people.

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