'Brexit', not election, may be 2016's defining moment
Published 28/12/2015 | 02:30
It's time to look into the crystal ball and make predictions for 2016. I have my own suspicions about the General Election's outcome. But I'll keep my powder dry for a while longer. Let's just say for now that I'm still being polite to Mr Kenny, as I fear he may be with us for a while longer.
Also, in a funny way, I firmly believe that this upcoming election may not, in fact, be the true defining political moment for us all in 2016. It gives me no pleasure at all to say this. But I fear another vote on that adjacent island just might have far more impact on all our lives, and sooner rather than later.
The more attentive reader, perhaps fired up from doing battle at the sales, will have guessed that I'm talking about the British referendum on their European Union membership. Yes, it's that unlovely word from the host of other unlovely words bequeathed us by Europe: "Brexit".
I have had that premonition since last May when British voters foxed the pollsters and gave a small but sufficient majority to David Cameron and the British Conservative and Unionist Party. From that moment onwards, the die was cast and, ironically, a question mark appended to the "unionist" element of that party's longer title.
Mr Cameron was committed to a referendum on the issue some time in the lifetime of his new government - if he won. It was one of those promises which had to be honoured. For various reasons, things have gathered pace in the intervening half year and we are looking at that referendum very probably being held in 2016.
We are looking at intensive negotiations between Britain and the other 28 EU member states in the first months of 2016. In an ideal world, Mr Cameron will return to London saying 'Fair deal - vote Yes for Europe'. In an even more ideal world, the bulk of British voters will do just that. Then the rest of us will breathe a sigh of relief and life as we know it will resume.
But life is not that simple. The European Union, in all its various manifestations, has been the most defamed and reviled institution in Britain since that country joined, along with Ireland and Denmark, back in 1973. It will take a heck of a campaign to undo the decades of lies and falsehoods against the EU which have been the staple of much of the British media.
Many recent opinion polls show Brexit is certainly possible.
Those in favour of leaving have lately been coming from behind and the argument appears to be running neck and neck, according to opinion surveys. Some recent polls, which those who want to stay dismiss as "unreliable", have actually predicted a win for those who want to leave the EU.
Like a lot of electoral contests, it is fair to speculate that about a third of voters want Britain to stay in the EU come what may. Another third definitely want out, regardless of whatever deal Mr Cameron can get. So, the battle will be for those who, ironically, decide most things in politics, the "don't knows" who make up the middle third.
It will be very hotly contested, with big claims being made on both sides. There are 46 million voters and it is likely that every single vote will count in a tight contest. Much will depend on how "Europe" is perceived in the run-up to polling day - which may happen in June or in October - depending on how the negotiations go.
A June polling day might favour a "stay vote", as we may not yet have seen the full refugee mayhem aired on British television screens. Like it or lump it, the perception that Britain risks being over-run by refugees is a major influencing factor.
Whether Britain stays or goes from the EU, that issue is unlikely to change. But that's referendums for you. Voters will answer a host of other questions, not necessarily the one on the ballot paper.
There are several key issues for Ireland which make it imperative that the Dublin government speaks up on the issue. We have some leverage in the potential to influence voters in Northern Ireland and to some extent Irish people or people of Irish extraction in Britain. But it is fair and indeed logical to assume that the impact on Ireland will figure little, if at all, as British voters make up their minds.
The reality remains that Britain remains our largest trading partner; we share a land border via Northern Ireland, which also means Ireland's affairs are inextricably enmeshed with those of the United Kingdom. And there is the issue of Scotland, which has had trade, emotional and personal links, especially to Northern Ireland, which go back to our pre-history.
If England and Wales opt to leave the EU, you could see Scotland really striking out on its own and working to stay in the EU. The upshot would mean Ireland having to work out a new series of relations with all our neighbours in these islands, and a new set of relations with our European partners. It would take a heck of a lot of time and energy, which could well be spent more beneficially.
The biggest issue which screams out again and again is Northern Ireland. Here, the attitude of the two biggest parties will be watched with interest. Already, Arlene Foster of the DUP has expressed ambivalence on the issue. Sinn Féin tell us they are pro-EU these days - but will they campaign?
All of this just might be more significant than whether Tweedledum or Tweedledee is the dominant player in the Irish government after the next General Election.