Saturday 1 October 2016

Our politicians will take a keen interest in British election

Published 04/05/2015 | 02:30

Cartoon - Postmasters Election
Cartoon - Postmasters Election

Charlie Flanagan will be watching those British results late on Thursday night with one rather ugly word on his mind: "Brexit."

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But all the inmates of Leinster House will have more self-interested curiosity about the fate of David Cameron, Ed Miliband and the others. A Conservative win in this week's British election would immediately raise prospects of an early British EU membership referendum putting the spotlight on the Foreign Affairs Minister.

But that is ultimately an issue for the next Irish government. Irish politicians' more immediate interests are based on the considerable parallels in how politics is done on Europe's two western islands.

We got our basic political model from the British in the lead up to the foundation of the Irish State. A small but telling example is that for a long time Ireland held its elections like Britain on Thursdays - not Sundays, like our Catholic European neighbours.

One explanation for Thursday was that it was the most usual market day. But I prefer another explanation, which is that it was the eve of pay day, and thus the day the plebs were least likely to be fighting drunk.

Given our proximity, shared history, common language and the penetration of British media in Ireland, what happens on that bigger island influences us. But in a strange way Britain may now be following more recent Irish political changes.

As both the Conservative and Labour parties appear unlikely to have an overall majority, we may well be looking at the end of Britain's two-party system. For the past 12 elections in Ireland, dating back to 1973, voters have only once, in June 1977, returned a single-party majority government.

Otherwise, bar a minority Fianna Fáil administration in 1987-89, we have had coalitions of varying permutations. While Fianna Fáil dominated three governments in the years 1997-2011, we now face a situation where that party is struggling to regain significant support. The next Irish election is an intriguing prospect.

This week, Fine Gael will be hoping for a boost to their fortunes in terms of mood music or subliminal messages from across the water. A win for David Cameron and the Tories on Thursday would be a big morale boost for Enda Kenny.

The reality is that both the London and Dublin governments have pursued policies of fierce economic re-trenchment for the past five years. British Chancellor, George Osborne, was known as "the austerity Chancellor" pursuing the most draconian policies since World War II, with average 25pc government departmental cuts.

At least in Dublin, Mr Kenny had a deal of political cover from the EU-ECB-IMF troika and the popular anger against his predecessors. But there is now widespread acceptance in Britain and Ireland that the respective economies are in recovery.

Curiously, there is also a shared reluctance among the British and Irish people to give much credit to the political parties who have dished out the harsh medicine. Commentators in Ireland have also pointed to parallels in the positions of the Liberal Democrats and the Irish Labour parties, suffering the undue grief of junior coalition partners carrying more ideology than their catch-all partners.

But there are many differences in the political line-up and future options in Britain. One of these, the extraordinary position of the Scottish National Party, harks back to Irish and British history.

Nicola Sturgeon has been characterised as "the most dangerous woman in Britain" as some elements of English nationalism struggle to come to terms with the corollary of their fervent support for the union of Scotland with the rest of the United Kingdom. These English politicians will have to accept the legitimacy of Scottish politicians democratically elected to Westminster, as they are set to be in a pivotal position after this ground-breaking election.

Still, the puzzlement and frustration in some sections of English society is in its way also understandable. Few people on the other island can remember that there is precedent for this. Many of us in Ireland will know that it has happened before with the Irish National Party holding the balance of power. But that was more than a century ago.

The Scottish National Party, effectively dedicated to ending the UK as it now stands, are the expected kingmakers after Thursday. Received Westminster wisdom is that they are "politically toxic" - but everyone is going to have to get over that one also. Across the world, parliamentary arithmetic has its own political power, and there is no reason to believe Westminster will be any different.

But another strange fact which arises when we contemplate elections to the British parliament, is how little interest the contest in Northern Ireland generates south of the border. There are a number of reasons for this - not least the predictability of contests which generally break down into two elections involving choices for who will represent the nationalists and unionists. Sinn Féin's sterile abstentionist policy has not helped either.

The one notable exception here has been Fermanagh South Tyrone, where Sinn Féin's Michele Gildernew won by just four votes last time out.

Back with the big picture, yesterday many British commentators were predicting it could take weeks to form the next government. To paraphrase the late John Kelly, the British people will very likely find that the sky will not fall upon them as a result of that.

Irish Independent

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