Tuesday 27 September 2016

Cameron's return to power brings many challenges for Kenny

Published 09/05/2015 | 02:30

DUP MPs Nigel Dodds, Gavin Robinson and party leader Peter Robinson celebrate their general election results at the Kings Hall in Belfast. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
DUP MPs Nigel Dodds, Gavin Robinson and party leader Peter Robinson celebrate their general election results at the Kings Hall in Belfast. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Like it or lump it, political events on the larger of Europe's western islands set a tone for political events here.

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And David Cameron's return to Number 10 Downing Street will boost Enda Kenny's belief that he can likewise return to Government Buildings inside the next 11 months. By contrast, it is not an encouraging result for Joan Burton following the slaughter of the junior British coalition partner, Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats.

But, away from such subliminal political speculation, this epic British election result poses big immediate challenges for Ireland. The biggest issue is an early 'in-out' referendum on British EU membership with huge implications for Ireland, which joined alongside the UK in 1973.

But Scotland's "political earthquake" and Cameron's slender majority possibly opens the doors to greater power for the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) - and also brings fears of increased instability in the North.

David Cameron has promised to renegotiate Britain's relationship with the EU and then hold the referendum on its EU membership by the end of 2017. If British voters opt to quit the EU it would pose huge economic and logistical headaches for Ireland.

But ahead of such an eventuality lies months and months of talks involving Irish officials trying to head off this eventuality. They must also explore potential new Irish-British relations in a post-EU world, and necessary concessions from the EU to permit a new bilateral relationship for continuing two-way free trade. The UK accounts for €12bn in exports of Irish goods and €17bn worth of services each year. We buy €26bn worth of goods and services from Britain each year.

More starkly we could, in theory at least, see a return of the Border with the North, which de facto disappeared after the 1992 EU Single Market. Perhaps most tellingly, Ireland could lose an important like-minded ally within the EU, and a valuable forum for equal meetings outside of Dublin and London that have helped transform British-Irish relations over the past generation.

Mr Cameron's manifesto pledges to control migration from the EU by reforming welfare benefits; to reclaim unspecified powers from Brussels; to reform the system so national parliaments can work together to block EU legislation; and to end Britain's commitment to "ever-closer union" with Europe.

Negotiations on that list are likely to kick off within days and will be the focus of the next EU leaders' summit, in Brussels on June 25 and 26. It seems difficult to see progress on that list without knock-on effects in other member states. In Ireland's case the prospect of another EU referendum looms large should Britain cut a deal which convinces their voters to stay in the EU.

But even with generous concessions to Cameron, an EU membership referendum in Britain will be very difficult. British citizens lack emotional engagement with the EU and their media have fed them a non-stop diet of Euro vilification for decades.

There is no member state where the citizens actively love the EU. But the British people's disengagement and antipathy is in a class of its own. Irish people like to vote down the odd EU treaty and send it back. But no significant Irish group has ever proposed quitting the EU.

There is also the prospect of Cameron ultimately having to make some sort of arrangement with the DUP for their support in the likely enough event of some Tory backbenchers breaking ranks. A slender majority for Cameron in Westminster makes this a real prospect in the future.

The price of support from the late Ian Paisley's party would be more welfare and other grants for the North. But the flashpoint issues with nationalists, of flying the Union flag and more leeway for Orange parades, also feature on the DUP shopping list. Observers in Belfast believe a deal on such issues is a long-shot.

It would depend on how badly Cameron needed bodies in the right Westminster voting lobby on a make-or-break issue. History is replete with precedent here.

More generally, many in Dublin, Belfast and London agree that the Scottish National Party's landslide victory makes changes to Scotland's status inevitable.

And that will clearly make many unionists and loyalists in the North deeply uneasy. Scotland's links to the North are part of the glue that binds the UK.

Enda Kenny and his Fine Gael colleagues in government will definitely see potential benefits in a return to power for Cameron and his Tory party. Both Kenny and Cameron drove relentlessly tough economic policies over their government terms and claimed credit for "fixing" their respective economies.

Cameron's win is an endorsement of "economic competence." Kenny will hope for the same. That might, all things being equal, be an indirect message to Irish voters.

The drubbing of the junior partner, the Liberal Democrats, will not encourage Joan Burton and Labour. Could Labour be facing a similar wipe-out? Unsurprisingly, the Labour stalwarts have many arguments for insisting the Liberal Democrat-Irish Labour comparisons do not hold up. Time will tell all.

Irish Independent

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