The political parties in Ireland are moving into general election mode. Candidates have been selected all around the country (185 to date, according to this list maintained by Maynooth Geography lecturer Adrian Kavanagh), and leaflets and posters are already being designed (I’m working on some).
It’s only two years since the last election, but the outcome – a Fine Gael minority government with a couple of Independents, supported by a confidence and supply agreement with Fianna Fáil – is, from one perspective, the least stable government in the country’s history; although it has lasted longer than some, to the surprise of many.
Talk of an election is heating up because this confidence and supply agreement is for support through three budgets, and we’ve already had two. The third, due in the autumn, would be the last under the present arrangement.
Theoretically, the agreement could be extended. Fine Gael will almost certainly ask Fianna Fáil to continue support through the scheduled life of the Dáil – a further two years. The question is whether Fianna Fáil will agree to an extension. Fianna Fáil are consistently trailing Fine Gael in opinion polls (I wrote about the last Red C here, with new numbers due this weekend), which could dampen their desire for an election; but tensions have clearly been rising between the two parties. A December election was nearly caused by Fianna Fáil’s demand for the head of Tánaiste and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald, narrowly averted when she resigned. Barbs have also been exchanged over housing, transport, the strategic communications unit; even Brexit and the north, a subject on which all parties normally show unanimity behind the government of the day. On balance, extension seems unlikely, to put it mildly.
So, when might an election happen? It’s actually hard to see when there’s time. An election must be called within 30 days of the Dáil being dissolved, typically at least 3 weeks. It’s difficult to find that length of time free in the 2018 policical calendar.
First, there is zero chance of an election being called before the Repeal the 8th referendum in late May. Nor will any government call a summer election, and there’s no time for a campaign between the referendum and the summer. So the earliest opportunity for an election to be called is when the Dáil returns from summer recess in September (last year, 20 September).
That would mean an October election – but, there’s already an autumn election on the books. Michael D. Higgins’ term as President expires on 10 November, with the election to be held with the preceding 60 days. A date is yet to be set, but the vote is likely to be scheduled for October. The Government has also planned three more constitutional referenda – likely to be less contentious – for the same day as the Presidential election.
Then there’s the Budget. Last year, this was presented on 11 October. Talk of an earlier election depends on Fianna Fáil withdrawing from the confidence and supply agreement early. If they follow through with their commitment and support the budget, it’s not as simple as turning up on Budget Day and clapping – they have to support the legislation in the Oireachtas. The Finance Bill doesn’t usually pass until at least December (12 December last year), and even if that could be accelerated, the parties know from the end of last year that the public won’t thank them for a Christmas election.
The difficulty will be agreeing the budget. Fine Gael will almost certainly look for an extension of the agreement before the budget, which Fianna Fáil are likely to reject. So, Fine Gael will be preparing an election budget, knowing it will be the last of this Government. Fianna Fáil are, naturally, unlikely to approve of anything which might give Fine Gael an electoral advantage.
So, that leaves two options. Ending the confidence and supply agreement early will lead to a messy general election overlapping with a presidential campaign in the autumn. Following through on the commitment, and coming to agreement over a budget, would see an election in Spring 2019 at the earliest.
Then, there’s another context to consider: Brexit.
The negotiations over the future relationship between the UK and the EU are intended to be concluded prior to the October 18-19 EU summit. The resulting deal must be approved by the EU, and by the national parliaments of the 27 EU member states – including Ireland. This is planned by January 2019 at the latest, to avoid any last-minute issues.
Given the central role the border in Ireland will play in those negotiations, is it really a good idea to embroil the country in a general election before the negotiations are concluded, or before the exit treaty is ratified?
It could even be argued that an election might be undesirable until after the UK leaves the EU at 11pm on Friday 29 March 2019. Perhaps a delay until after April Fool’s Day (the first working day post-Brexit – one senses Theresa May didn’t think that one through) to allow the consequences to become apparent might be sensible? On the other hand, the period between ratification and Brexit might provide an opportunity to put a new government in place to deal with any consequences.
The Taoiseach may be the one who technically decides when to go to the Áras to ask the President to dissolve the Dáil and call an election, but this time, Leo Varadkar will have his schedule decided for him. Micheal Martin hold all the cards, and will be the one who decides when Ireland next goes to the polls to elect a Government.
I don’t believe he will want to mix general and Presidential elections, or to add any uncertainty to the Brexit negotiations. Indeed, I’ll go further and say I believe it would be irresponsible to see a potential change of government prior to agreement between the UK and EU; I’m sure he knows that, and won’t act against the national interest. Once budget legislation is passed, however, and the Brexit treaty ratified, I think he’ll want the election out of the way in order to have a new Dáil and Government in place to deal with the reality of Brexit.
So, my prediction is that, barring unforeseen circumstances, Ireland will go to the polls in February, or, at the latest, early March 2019.
This could be a long year in politics. Strap in, it’s going to be an interesting ride.