Thursday 20 June 2019

UK elections always matter to us, but Brexit makes this one crucial

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May speaks to the media outside 10 Downing Street, in central London, as she calls for an early election on June 8 Photo: REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May speaks to the media outside 10 Downing Street, in central London, as she calls for an early election on June 8 Photo: REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Shane Coleman

Not since Ireland won our independence has there been a British general election of such importance to this country as the upcoming one on June 8.

Of course elections across the Irish Sea have always mattered to us - a combination of a post-colonial hangover, the immense trade and cultural links with Britain and, of course, the impact on events in the North meant that we always cared about the outcome.

But you have to go back to December 1918 - when Sinn Féin usurped the Irish Parliamentary Party and proclaimed the establishment of Dáil Éireann - to find a UK election with the potential to have such a direct impact on our lives here in Ireland.

And, while there's a long time to go before polling day, it's hard not to be deeply pessimistic about the outcome. Theresa May is pitching this as the Brexit election and, surely inevitably, it will be far more decisive than the Brexit referendum of last summer.

Unless the entirely unexpected occurs, what's left of the 'Remain' campaign will be routed and Mrs May will have a thumping parliamentary majority that will drive a hardline stance with the EU over the terms of the UK's exit.

It's true that a big Conservative majority will reduce the influence of the Brexit backwoodsmen in the Tory ranks. Given the current tightness of numbers in Westminster, they could have held the prime minister to ransom on the final Brexit deal. That potential will be reduced by a Tory majority of 100-plus seats.

But that positive will be more than offset by the psychological impact of a resounding mandate for the Conservative Party in June. Nuances in politics are either ignored or quickly forgotten. And the election result will immediately be interpreted as a huge endorsement by the voters of the 'Brexit means Brexit', and 'no deal is better than a bad deal', empty nonsense that Mrs May has indulged in since the referendum.

Unless cooler heads prevail, the momentum of that 'endorsement' will propel Britain into a collision course with the rest of the EU - and an inevitable hard Brexit that will be bad for the UK and disastrous for us.

Anybody still in any doubt about the negative impact of Brexit on Ireland should read last week's report on the subject by the National Competitiveness Council. While the political system was busy obsessing about the comparative irrelevance that is water charges, the NCC produced a deeply sobering study outlining "the serious and imminent threat to Ireland's economic security" posed by Brexit. Was anybody paying attention?

To be fair, the Government and our diplomatic services here have done a decent job in European capitals, stressing how Ireland's interests need to be protected in any Brexit deal. But right now, there is an unmistakeable sense - heightened after yesterday's UK election announcement - that events are moving beyond our control. Our fate, it seems, is in the hands of a prime minister who has spent the last 12 months, to borrow a line from Monty Python, making it up as she goes along.

Mrs May might be the most unimpressive British PM in living memory, but she has that characteristic Napoleon sought most in his generals - luck. She won the Tory leadership simply by remaining in an upright position while her rivals, one by one, self-destructed. And now she faces a Labour Party that is on course for its worst general election performance since 1983. The even darker spectre of 1931, when a divided Labour lost 225 seats, hovers in the background. Jeremy Corbyn has his admirers in this country, but he is as unelectable as prime minister as Michael Foot was 34 years ago.

At least Mr Foot bowed to the inevitable after overseeing Labour's annihilation at the hands of Margaret Thatcher. There is no guarantee Mr Corbyn will do likewise, leaving a once great party facing a genuine existential crisis.

If the election is a de-facto second referendum on Brexit, Mr Corbyn is in the worst possible place - stuck in the middle between 'Remain' and 'Leave', something of an irrelevance. Probably the best Labour can hope for is an election hammering and Mr Corbyn's resignation. The worst? An election hammering and Mr Corbyn's return as leader.

The Brexit result should have been a blessing for the Liberal Democrats, the one party wholeheartedly in the 'Remain' camp. But instead it 'remains' stagnant in the polls. The Lib Dems generally flatter to deceive. This time there aren't even flattering poll numbers.

Everything points to a Conservative party landslide. No calling of a general election is without risk, but this is as close as it gets. Perhaps Mrs May's previous promises that she wouldn't call a general election will damage her and the snap poll will be perceived as a shameless power grab. Don't bet on it. Her insistence the election is in Britain's interest - to give her the authority to negotiate the best possible deal for the UK - will probably hold sway. And then, just like the Tory leadership contest, all she needs to do is avoid any silly mistakes. There's little doubt that calling the election was the smart move for her politically.

But the wider implications are deeply troubling. Can she control the forces that the election is likely to unleash? Or, when the Brexit negotiations proper begin in the autumn, will she be firmly tied into a straitjacket that could have been run up by Ukip?

The election is likely to make it even harder to reach a deal in the North. Sinn Féin's head has already been turned away from Stormont by the prospect of a Border poll. A century ago next month Sinn Féin fought a Westminster election, winning a famous by-election in South Longford. Joe McGuinness, in prison in England for his part in the 1916 Rising, shook the British establishment by taking the seat. His slogan was simple: 'Put him in to get him out.' A hundred years on, the Conservative Party's election slogan could easily be: 'Put her in to get us out.' But at what cost to the UK, to the EU and to us here?

Irish Independent

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