Ireland is the third most pro-European Member State in the whole of the Union, and it might like to carry on in this fashion, content to be a small country, positively contributing to European life and reaping the rewards. But Ireland has the misfortune of noisy neighbours: not only Brexit, but also the ongoing headache of Northern Ireland.
Ireland is set to be the Member State which is most affected by Brexit, since it shares a land border with the UK. Indeed, even before Brexit eventually happens, the uncertainty of what this border will look like is wreaking havoc across the whole island. The Irish do an extraordinary amount of business with the UK, especially with Northern Ireland. In fact, some goods cross the border three-to-four times on the production line. For Ireland, that border must remain genuinely frictionless. In the long-term, polling is suggesting that Irish citizens believe that Brexit will make the prospect of a united Ireland much more likely than before.
But the issues with Northern Ireland do not end there. Based on the compromises made under the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the Northern Ireland Executive (regional government) and Assembly (parliament) are supposed to govern the region on a number of devolved issues. However, following a fairly successful ten years (2007-2017) of devolved government in Belfast, the arrangement collapsed two years ago, leaving the region without a government. It took the tragic death of journalist and activist Lyra McKee in April this year to shame the parties – the DUP and Sinn Féin – into finally meeting together, with representatives from London and Dublin, to restart the power-sharing agreement in Belfast. The saga continues.
How will any of this impact the domestic politics in Ireland, south of the border?
Less Sinn Féin: Firstly, it looks like Sinn Féin, the cross-border party which strongly supports a united Ireland, will lose seats in the European Parliament. In any case, after Brexit, Sinn Féin will lose an MEP from Northern Ireland. Polling is also showing that Sinn Féin will probably lose some of its three Irish MEPs: public opinion views Sinn Féin as largely a single-issue party – that single issue being a united Ireland. Even if they don’t lose any seats, the Irish view Sinn Féin’s politics as too left-wing, whereas the national parliament is over two thirds centre-to-centre-right parties.
More liberal: Predictions are showing that the governing party, Fine Gael (EPP), will most likely return the highest number of MEPs again. However, Fianna Fáil (ALDE) is expected to return three MEPs (up from one), who will most likely sit with the ALDE group (unlike the outgoing Brian Crowley, who defected to the ECR).
Commissioner: Ireland’s Commissioner, Phil Hogan, who holds the agriculture portfolio, is hoping to be nominated again to be a Commissioner. He is generally viewed to have done a good job and, being of the same party as the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister), is likely to be nominated again. However, this time it is rumoured that he is looking to take the more prestigious trade file: indeed, he already has experience on trade issues, having negotiated the agriculture parts of numerous trade deals.
In short, while Ireland’s fortunes are tied to the UK and Brexit, and while Northern Irish domestic issues creep south of the border, the European elections in May are not going to produce any real shocks. It will be centre-to-centre-right, pro-European business as usual for this happy isle.