The Guardian view on Ireland’s election: a contest with consequences

The Guardian view on Ireland’s election: a contest with consequences. The start of the American presidential race next month may seem more alluring. But the Irish general election is of more immediate importance for Britain

Britain’s political class is insular. It rarely shows any interest in foreign elections. That general rule may get bent as the United States presidential election gets into gear in the coming weeks. But the evidence of this country’s default inwardness is that there is an election on this side of the Atlantic in less than three weeks with a far more immediate bearing on Britain than the one in America. This one will get only a fraction of the attention that will be expended on the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. But then this one is in Ireland.

Why does Ireland’s 8 February election matter to Britain? Partly for the obvious reason that Ireland is one of Britain’s nearest neighbours. Partly because the peoples of these islands are so intermingled. But more than anything it matters because of Brexit.

Britain is less than two weeks away from leaving the European Union. The unique situation on the island of Ireland has been at the heart of the battle over Brexit terms since 2016. The Irish dimension has only just stabilised, at least to a degree, with the restoration of power-sharing in Northern Ireland and the Commons passage of the UK-EU withdrawal agreement bill.

But there is plenty of unfinished Brexit business in Ireland, north and south. This includes selling the new withdrawal agreement terms in a divided Northern Ireland, ensuring that trade talks with the EU will work for both parts of the island, and making sure that any deal buttresses the peace process. It matters greatly that the next Irish government should be as effective as the outgoing one has been at insisting that Britain lives up to its promises in the Belfast agreement and crafts a Brexit deal that does not threaten it. Neither Theresa May nor Boris Johnson would have done that without the pressure that Dublin rightly brought to bear.

For four years, Ireland has been ruled by economically liberal Fine Gael minority governments under Enda Kenny and Leo Varadkar. These have been kept in place by confidence and supply deals with Fianna Fáil, led by Micheál Martin. But Mr Varadkar’s support in the Dáil has ebbed. His aim to delay the election into the summer faltered. Last week he jumped before he was pushed.

On Brexit policy, the prime concern for the UK, little divides the two parties, neither of which is likely to achieve an outright majority on 8 February. Whichever of them emerges the stronger under Ireland’s proportional representation system, continuity of Brexit policy is likely in whatever coalition or arrangement emerges. The chief threat to that would be if Mr Martin was compelled by the result and his party into an unlikely coalition with Sinn Féin, which seeks an early border poll. This is an option Mr Martin has repeatedly ruled out, but which some in his party prefer. Either way this is a new era. For the first time since 1973, the UK and Ireland will be on opposite sides of the table on tariffs and trade.

While the UK’s 2019 election was inevitably dominated by Brexit, Ireland’s election is unsurprisingly focusing on its own domestic issues. Mr Varadkar promotes his stewardship of the economy and promises tax cuts. But public dissatisfaction on housing and health make it vulnerable. Fianna Fáil promises higher spending but its prospects will be shaped by whether memories of its role in the 2008 financial crisis have faded. Smaller parties, including Sinn Féin, the Greens and Labour, will play important roles. The contests in Iowa and New Hampshire may be more alluring to British politicians and journalists. But the one in Ireland will matter more to the British people.