Saturday 24 August 2019

Cormac McQuinn: 'FG got Brexit boost in elections while SF faces grim post-mortem'

Huge vote: MEP Mairead McGuinness celebrates with her friend Deirdre O’Hea at the Castlebar count centre after her election. Photo: Mark Condren
Huge vote: MEP Mairead McGuinness celebrates with her friend Deirdre O’Hea at the Castlebar count centre after her election. Photo: Mark Condren
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

The battle for Brussels is over and Fine Gael and Sinn Féin have come out of the European election with starkly contrasting fortunes.

Fine Gael is on course to take five seats, the party's best result in 15 years. Meanwhile, Sinn Féin's number could be halved from four MEPs to just two across the island.

So what went so right for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's party, and so wrong for Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald? As with all else in Irish politics in the last three years, Brexit looms large.

On the one hand, there is the Fine Gael-led Government seen as leading the charge in efforts to limit the threat posed by Brexit. On the other, Sinn Féin's seven MPs are refusing to take their Westminster seats where they could be a voice for Ireland.

And then there's the impasse in re-establishing the power-sharing in the North despite renewed talks involving Sinn Féin and the DUP.

While Fine Gael increased its number of MEPs, Sinn Féin lost its seat in Dublin where Lynn Boylan failed to get re-elected.

In Ireland South, Sinn Féin requested a recount after its candidate, Liadh Ní Riada, missed out by 327 votes to the Green Party's Grace O'Sullivan. It could be weeks before the final result is known there. Fine Gael's Seán Kelly will be elected and Deirdre Clune is also set to keep her seat.

In Northern Ireland, former IRA prisoner Martina Anderson won a seat but she will have to leave the European Parliament once Brexit happens. She topped the poll in 2014 but it was another anti-Brexit candidate, Naomi Long of the Alliance Party, who got the most votes this time.

In Midlands-North-West Sinn Féin's Matt Carthy hung on to take the final seat. The massive vote secured by Fine Gael's Mairead McGuinness helped her get her running mate, former Rose of Tralee Maria Walsh, over the line. Ms McGuinness has been a prominent Irish voice on Brexit. In his speech after the Castlebar count, Mr Carthy acknowledged her "phenomenal vote".

He said it was, in part, an endorsement of the backstop to avoid a hard Border in Ireland. He said Sinn Féin and other parties also support the backstop and suggested the vote was a signal that voters "expect us to continue to work together in Ireland's interests".

Fine Gael European Affairs spokesman Senator Neale Richmond said Fine Gael has been highlighting the Brexit threat and working with the farming and business sectors to address the challenges they face.

He believes that was reflected in the election result, saying Ms McGuinness and Mr Kelly "got a huge vote for a very good reason". Mr Richmond criticised Sinn Féin's record on Brexit, saying: "Calling for a Border poll or special status isn't going to cut it."

He said: "It's symptomatic of their position on everything. They talk a lot but they don't do anything." Mr Richmond said that Sinn Féin should take its Westminster seats given the economic threat posed to Ireland by Brexit.

During the week, Ms McDonald was asked if the election result amounted to voters sending Sinn Féin a message on abstentionism and the impasse in the North. She didn't answer the question on Westminster but said the stalemate in the North was "unacceptable".

She said there had been a deal last year but "we didn't have a partner in Unionism to deliver". She said she hopes that has changed now there are renewed negotiations.

Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane claimed it was Sinn Féin that first proposed special status for the North "which in essence became the Irish backstop". He accused Mr Richmond of party political point-scoring amid the continuing threat of a no-deal Brexit.

There's renewed chaos in Westminster after British Prime Minister Theresa May announced her plan to step down with October 31 Brexit deadline looming. The issue will continue to dominate.

It appears from the European election result that Fine Gael got a boost for its approach to Brexit. Sinn Féin will have to include it in the post-mortem on why it had such a disastrous election.

Irish Independent

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