Interview: After Brexit – Snap Elections in Ireland

 

On Saturday a new parliament will be elected in Ireland. For the Republic of Ireland, the stakes are high: In recent polls Sinn Fein, the former mouthpiece of the IRA, has risen sharply. In an interview with freiheit.org, Erin McGreehan, city councillor of Louth and a graduate of the European Women’s Academy, explains what the liberal Fianna Fail has to counter this and what the outcome of the election means for Ireland and Europe.

 

The Irish people were not supposed to re-elect their parliament until 2021, now they are asked to head to the polls on February 8th. What led to the snap elections?

There are many reasons for the snap General Election, I suppose a perfect storm of circumstances came together at the beginning of January.

Before Christmas we had by-elections which resulted in the Government Party Fine Gael losing out and resignations within their party had the consequence of a reduction of their majority; a majority that was only facilitated due to the ‘confidence & supply’ agreement with Fianna Fail. This ‘C&S’ agreement was facilitated after the 2016 General Election because of the importance that Ireland have a stable and working government going into Brexit negotiations.

The Government had cross party support going into these Brexit negotiations. This unity across the entire parliament; furnished the Government with strength and support from the country that was needed. Ireland saw itself stronger as a united force and not dissenting parliament like we saw in the United Kingdom. The Confidence & Supply Agreement was only supposed to last until Brexit was agreed. It was always envisaged that there would be an election this year, but it was expected around Easter.

So, the question why January. Firstly, Brexit was ‘done’ on the 31st January. Secondly, domestic issues became so untenable there was going to be a motion of no confidence in Minister of Health Simon Harris. It was thought that the Government would lose this and therefore collapse. No leader of a country wants that, so Leo Varadkar took it upon himself to call the election for February 8th. There are many domestic crises in Ireland at the minute. A devastating health care crisis with nearly 800k individuals waiting for treatment, a staff shortage due to the Governments moratorium on hiring new staff, crisis and scandal in relation to mental health, women’s health, and millions of overspend on the new children’s hospital, which is billed to be the most expensive hospital ever built. I really could continue.

A housing crisis due to lack of investment in public housing and the underfunding of Local Government which has seen 10,000 people in homelessness. This has caused inflation in the cost of housing for rent and for purchase.

Personally, I was delighted to see the end of the Confidence and Supply agreement. It was a huge sacrifice for Fianna Fail to make and now Fianna Fail are being punished for it by the other opposition parties. Ironically by the same party Sinn Fein who sat back and refused to enter Government back in 2016. Ireland needed a stable government for the first stage of Brexit negotiations and now this election I hope will bring another stable Government for the second part of Brexit; the trade negotiations.

 

What are the implications of the elections for Europe in general and the post-Brexit trade deal in particular?

These Elections are crucial for Europe and the Post-Brexit Trade Deal. The polling is suggesting that Fine Gael are going to lose power and I really believe that the country is incredibly tired of this party. We have had 9 years of Fine Gael governments and yes, our economy is doing well but our society is struggling.

There seems to be a rise in support for Sinn Fein who has been anti-Europe for decades campaigning against every European Treaty, they have a tradition of being isolationists. However, to their credit they were against Brexit but not because of their belief in the European project or the model of cooperation and democracy. To be fair I think they realise that many of huge improvements we saw on this island socially and economically was in part down to our membership of the EU and the four freedoms that membership guarantees. The free movement of Goods and Services and of people facilitated an open border and was a huge factor in the success of the Good Friday Agreement.

In my opinion it is a risk to have Sinn Fein in Government due to their lack of true commitment to the European Union. They are members of European United Left/Nordic Green Left in the European institutions, personally I would worry about this.

If Fianna Fail are elected to Government there will be continuity of approach and a very strong European partner, proud members of Renew Europe. In 1973 when our Fianna Fail Taoiseach formally signed the agreement it was a momentous day for our country. It heralded great changes in our country and has brought positive diversity and social change on our Island.

 

What are the main issues in this election and how does Fianna Fáil plan to tackle them? What is your vision for Ireland’s future?

The main issues in this election are as I said are the issues in our health service, the wasting of public monies, the housing crisis, possible rise of the pension age, lack of adequate and affordable childcare, the lack of investment in our rural areas and drug related organised crime.

Fianna Fail have strong policies in relation to all the issues. We are careful not to commit to overspending due to the uncertainty of the trade negotiations ahead. We have committed to employing more police, more healthcare workers, investing in early years and supporting families.  A huge commitment to public and affordable housing and a progressive a fair attitude to the Climate Change and biodiversity crises.

I have such ambition for Ireland. Brexit brings a lot of opportunities for our Island but only with the support of our European partners. Being on the periphery of Europe we have our challenges. Ireland will need extra supports and cooperation in relation to trade routes for our exports and diversification of Irish markets and to encourage indigenous industry also. Our agriculture sector which is our largest export will also need protection from the UK third party trade deals. The new ‘Green Deal’ needs to be cognisant and encouraging of efficient and environmental farming practices. The EU and nation states needs to have an attitude or policy that European food is the most environmentally friendly. The spin that beef farmers must change is that beef is wrong and yet the same people are importing avocados and other food stuffs from outside the EU causing a far higher carbon footprint. This must change.

I see a prosperous Ireland at the heart of Europe, leading the way on green energy and social change. Fianna Fails philosophy is ‘An Ireland For All’, to me this is the reason I am involved in politics. To work towards an inclusive, fair and diverse society were everyone no matter who you are has the freedom and opportunity to achieve what they wish.

Ireland also needs a strong and united Europe against the dangerous rhetoric of populism. Its is very easy to be negative, but as a progressive party we need to champion our ideals. The Europe we are working towards is not a degradation of just one section of society as many of the populists see. It is about protecting all sections of society. To borrow a phrase ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’, that to work towards improving the lives for example immigrants, people with disabilities or those from lower socio-economic growth has the result of improving all society. A true threat to our democracy is to ignore the marginalised.  We should work towards ‘A Europe for All’.

 

 

Erin McGreehan was elected Louth City Councilwoman on 19 May 2020. She is a member of the liberal party Fianna Fail and has been a party activist all her life. She was recently appointed deputy member of the Committee of the Regions. In 2019 Erin graduated successfully from the European Women’s Academy run by our cooperation partners ALDE Party, European Liberal Forum and Friedrich Naumann Foundation.

Erin holds a Bachelor’s degree in Public & Social Policy as well as a Bachelor’s degree in Law from the National University of Ireland and a Master’s degree in European Economics and Public Affairs from University College Dublin.