In Depth

Ireland’s election: what it means for Britain

Housing, homelessness and health are key issues in February poll

With Ireland’s economy booming, unemployment falling and a short-term solution to the Irish border question secured, the nation heads to the ballot box on 8 February to elect a new government.

As the BBC reports, “under other circumstances, Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar could be confident of a return to power”. But, despite the positive outlook, latest polling suggests that support for his Fine Gael party is falling and Micheal Martin’s Fianna Fail party is leading the race.

The two parties, both of which are broadly centrist, have been in a confidence-and-supply arrangement for the past few years. 

So who will triumph in Ireland’s first Saturday election since independence?

Which parties are in the running?

Varadkar’s Fine Gael is a centrist party with a socially progressive outlook that lists “equality of opportunity, free enterprise and reward, security, integrity and hope” among its core values. Fine Gael has been the majority party since the 2016 election, when it formed an agreement with Fianna Fail and nine independents.

Young, gay and the son of an Indian immigrant, Varadkar is to many a representation of a rapidly modernising Ireland. But, as The Irish Times reports, the party’s messages on Brexit and the economy have “fallen flat” and candidates have been been “badly roughed up about housing and health”. 

Polling shows that 38% of voters feel that it is “time for a change”, while 37% think it is time for a “radical change of direction for the country”.

Micheal Martin’s Fianna Fail is enjoying a rise in support, despite supporting Fine Gael in recent years. Fianna Fail is also a centrist party and is opposed to the left-wing Labour Party and Sinn Fein. 

According to The Irish Sun, the latest polling has Martin’s party in the lead and while it is unlikely to win a majority, it is on course “to be the majority partner in the next government”.

Sinn Fein has seen an uptick in support, mainly among the young. Sinn Fein – meaning “We Ourselves” – is a left-wing republican party that struggled for many years to throw off its association with the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The BBC reports that the other frontline parties are all concerned about “shadowy figures” behind the party, “often [including] former IRA prisoners”. 

But, as The Guardian reports, “under Mary Lou McDonald, a Dubliner without paramilitary baggage, Sinn Fein is the third-biggest party”. However, as the Irish Times notes, “both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have ruled out coalition government with Sinn Féin after the election”.

The centre-left Labour Party has struggled to make an impact in the polls, having seen its support collapse after a disastrous partnership with Fine Gael in the post-financial crash period. However, with the race so tight, the Guardian adds that the party “seems poised to return to government in coalition with Fianna Fail or Fine Gael”.

What are the main talking points?

The BBC reports that all frontline politicians in Ireland agree that housing, homelessness and health are the key issues that need to be tackled. According to the broadcaster, “all the parties accept that more homes need to be built”, with rising rents in Dublin causing issues relating to infrastructure and childcare.

This shows in the polls where 40% of voters consider health the most important issue of the election, with 32% citing housing as a vital topic.

Pensions have also risen as an issue during the campaign. Like the UK, Ireland has been extending the pension age from 65 towards 68. However, Sinn Fein has suggested working to lower this again to 65.

What does it mean for Britain?

During the Irish election campaign, Britain will leave the European Union, after which it will enter a period of negotiation with the trading bloc, including Ireland.

In his speech announcing the election, Varadkar said: “Brexit is not done yet – in fact it’s only half-time… The next step is to negotiate a free trade agreement that protects our jobs, our businesses, our rural communities.”

Fine Gael has attempted to portray itself as the party to handle the remainder of the Brexit negotiations, but this does not appear to have gone down well with voters. 

However, as The Guardian says in its editorial column, it is important that the next Irish government insists “that Britain lives up to its promises in the Belfast agreement and crafts a Brexit deal that does not threaten it.

“Neither Theresa May nor Boris Johnson would have done that without the pressure that Dublin rightly brought to bear,” the paper adds. 


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