Pat Leahy: What does the British result mean for Ireland?
Start date for Brexit negotiations with European Commission now in doubt
The British general election result, almost certain to result in a hung parliament, has thrown British politics into confusion and put a huge question mark over the future of Brexit.
It is now doubtful if the formal negotiations on Brexit, due to start on Monday week (June 19th) between the British negotiating team and European Commission officials led by Michel Barnier will begin.
For a start, it may not be clear by then who will form the next British government - much less what its policy on Brexit might be.
Both Nigel Farage and the current leader of the all-but-wiped out UKIP Paul Nuttall warned last night that the entire Brexit project was now in jeopardy, while others suggested that a second Brexit referendum was now a likely prospect.
For Irish politicians and officials, anything that discommodes UKIP sounds like good news.
There will be an immediate period of high uncertainty, as British politics comes to terms with the shock result. The pound fell sharply on the news of last night’s exit poll, creating fresh problems for Irish exporters to the UK, paid for their goods and services in less valuable sterling.
When the election was called, senior Irish political figures hoped privately that if Ms May won the spanking majority everyone expected, it might free her hand to negotiate a softer Brexit. But there was no sign during the campaign that she was willing to consider – for example – remaining in the customs union.
Where a year ago Ireland hoped that Britain would remain in the single market and the customs union, it has become clear since then that the best that could be hoped for under Ms May was a special arrangement for Northern Ireland that ameliorated the worst of the effects on the North. As has been the case since the Brexit debate a year ago, Northern Ireland played little no part in Westminster political consideration.
Ironically, the still emerging parliamentary numbers may now mean that if Ms May is to be able reach a majority in the House of Commons, she will have to rely on the support of the DUP. That would put Arlene Foster, or more likely the party’s Westminster MPs, in a strong position to soften a future May Government’s line on Brexit, at least insofar as it affected Northern Ireland.
It also, however, raises the intruiging question of whether Sinn Féin might be prepared to abandon its policy of refusing to take its Westminster seats if it meant it could deny Ms May a DUP-supported majority.
The remaking of the political map of the North - the election has carved it up between the DUP and Sinn Féin – will surely clarify this question. As recently as Wednesday, speaking on the Irish Times Inside Politics Podcast, the party’s deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald ruled out such a development. But if the numbers fall the way they might, it would be hard to resist the logic of it.
Whatever the final disposition of the Commons numbers, it seems clear even at this early stage that the likelihood of a hard Brexit has receded. While the result may amplify the Brexiteer voices in the Conservative Party – the other sound you hear from that quarter is the sharpening of knives for Ms May – the fact is that the numbers are not there for them in the House of Commons.
The result and ultimate fallout from this extraordinary election will take some time to take shape. But it seems clear that the support for a hard Brexit has diminished amongst the British public.
The apparently huge turnout amongst younger voters, many of whom stayed at home for the Brexit referendum, changes the picture not just for a possible second referendum on Brexit, but for future elections. And the most likely result from a hung parliament is another election before too long.
The result will force Labour to develop a clear policy on Brexit – not something that has been apparent until now. Last night the shadow chancellor John McDonnell said Labour would try to gain a majority in parliament by offering a programme of government that set out “a new tone for Brexit negotiations”. At the very least, a Labour policy is likely to take more account of the needs of Northern Ireland.
The result also throws into doubt the expected restarting of talks on a new Stormont Executive next week, in advance of the June 29 deadline. On Friday morning it was not clear if the UK would have a new Government by June 29th, never mind Stormont.
Irish and British officials had expected contact between the two governments this weekend with a view to an initiative at prime ministerial level to inject momentum into the efforts to restart the power-sharing administration. That seems unlikely now.
What are the general political lessons from the result for Ireland?
It is likely to diminish the attraction of an early election for the incoming Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar. Perhaps the defining commentary on the British election was Brenda, the voter from Bristol West, whose exasperated reaction when told by a BBC reporter of Ms May’s decision to call an election six weeks ago was “Not another one!”
She was soon (inevitably) hailed as the voice of the nation. But if the result shows anything, it is that voters are not as fond of elections as are the political and media class, and are unlikely to reward politicians who call one for partisan political advantage. Mr Varadkar, who yesterday confessed that he would be glued to the results last night, is unlikely to ignore the message.
The performance of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is also likely to give encouragement to the left in Ireland. Mr Corbyn’s base in the British Labour Party can hardly be compared to the much narrower support base of the small left wing parties in Ireland who were his most vocal supporters, but his success demonstrates that there is receptive audience for a strong left-wing, us-versus-them message, especially amongst young people.
It is a sign that politics in the post-crash world is in a state of constant flux, constant unpredictability. That is almost certainly true in Ireland too.