The Irish government is nearing collapse due to a long-running police scandal
Ireland has consistently played hardball with the UK on the sensitive issue of the post-Brexit border between the Republic and the north of Ireland, leaving Theresa May and her Brexit ministers scrambling to progress in EU talks.
But a surprise collapse in the fragile minority-led Irish government has left the country on the brink of a general election just three weeks before next month’s key EU summit.
Political turmoil in Ireland will only help Mrs May’s government, who have struggled to cope with the determined stance in Dublin on the border issue – despite warnings stretching back months.
Last week Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was seemingly taken aback when he was told by Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney, mid-press conference, Ireland expected a transition period of up to five years – in part to protect border communities.
And Dublin has repeatedly demanded more information on the UK’s plans for a post-Brexit border, which has thus far been all-but empty of concrete detail other than lukewarm and misguided assurances to avoid “physical infrastructure”.
Indeed Ireland has become increasingly frustrated in recent weeks at the UK’s apparent surprise at the great importance put on the border issue. Despite months of warnings from leaders in Dublin, Stormont and Brussels, the future of the invisible border between the two states went all but ignored during the Brexit referendum.
Instead Brexit campaigners focused on ending EU laws, the financial benefits of leaving the bloc and the “taking back control” of Britain’s borders – without actually discussing how this would effect the UK’s only physical border with the EU.
But last night a long-rumbling Gardai (police) scandal in the Republic threatened to end the 18-month agreement between the Ireland’s two biggest parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.
Deputy leader Frances Fitzgerald has been embroiled in a long-running police scandal
A breakdown of the minority Fine Gael government’s cooperation deal, which has worked relatively smoothly up until now, would likely lead to an election in December or January.
A no-confidence motion in Frances Fitzgerald, the Tánaister (deputy PM), was this week tabled by Sinn Fein. Main opposition party Fianna Fail may table their own today, essentially calling time on the confidence-and-supply agreement.
It comes after Ms Fitzgerald admitted she was made aware of an attempt to discredit a high-profile police whistleblower in a 2015 email but either failed to appreciate its importance or worse, failed to act.
Taoiseach (prime minister) Leo Varadkar last night refused to fire his deputy and gave her his full support, claiming opposition parties were attempting to destroy the government on “trumped up charges”.
Relations between Dublin and Westminster has cooled as Brexit talks intensify
The election, if it is called, comes at a crucial time in Irish history. After centuries of oppression at the hands of Britain, Ireland now essentially holds a veto over whether Brexit talks progress to Stage 2 between the UK and EU – a rare reversal of power in Anglo-Irish relations.
The EU has been steadfast in its decision to first conclude talks on the status of EU citizens in Britain, the Irish border and the exit fee before progression to trade negotiations, backing up Dublin at every turn.
A collapse appears to be nearing at the worst possible time for the island, with Brexit issues married with concerns about Ireland’s growing homelessness problem and putting preparations for next year’s long-awaited referendum on abortion at risk. The 2018 budget has also not been fully legislated yet.
READ MORE: How does the Irish border impact Brexit talks?
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The ultimate irony is an election would do little to separate Ireland’s two biggest parties, with opinion polls suggesting Fine Gale and Fianna Fail would increase their support but still struggle to form anything but another minority government.
The two parties, who share broadly similar ideologies and policies but are divided by a decades-long rivalry stretching back to the Irish civil war, are both polling in the mid-30s. Sinn Fein have not built upon progress made during the early-2010s and remain static with support rarely reaching 20. Another election would do little but weaken Ireland’s position in Brexit talks – and strengthen the UK’s.