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Why the result of a UK General Election has never been so important to Ireland

The electorate of the United Kingdom go to the polls tomorrow to vote in an election that has the potential to bring about the biggest political landscape change in a generation. Although no votes have yet been cast, the polls all indicate that we are entering something of uncharted territory with the rise of multiple smaller parties that will consign the concept of single party government to the past in the UK for a long time.

So what are the key differences this time around?

  • The arrival of the nationalists

After a near miss in their campaign for independence the Scottish National Party (SNP) have the potential to make the biggest single impact in Westminster since the Irish Home Rule Party held the balance of power pre World War One and used it to sue for the concession of Home Rule for Ireland. Fast forward just over a century and the SNP have the potential to adopt a similar position, pushing for greater autonomy for self determination through a similar means. Based on the current polling, the SNP could feasibly take almost every Westminster seat available in Scotland primarily on the back of, frankly, the most charismatic leader of all the party leaders (something which has been reflected in her ratings in every poll post debates), a sense of opportunity to get a better deal for Scotland as a part of the UK and also the approach taken by the No campaign backers (the 3 main UK parties) in scaremongering to drive the No vote and then being overtly triumphalist in celebrating a marginal win. For the good of the Union or not, it would appear the SNP will be the king makers this time around.

  • The rise of the right

Not since Enoch Powell’s famous speech in Wolverhampton have politicians as far to the right as those belonging to UKIP had as much media coverage. The uneven distribution of the positive economic upswing in the UK in the past couple of years has proved fertile breeding ground, (along with their more acceptable position) for UKIP in terms of creating a sense of jingoism around a sense of Britishness, immigration more tightly controlled and the sovereign (and her presence on the currency) being someone to be revered. UKIP policies (agree with them or otherwise) are finding support across England and they are potentially on the brink of become a sizeable political force on the right in Westminster with potentially the ability to influence a more right of centre agenda with the more mainstream parties.

  • The demise of the centrists

The populism of UKIP has also had an effect of drawing the mainstream parties away from the centre positions that they had been drifting towards ever since “New Labour” came to power in 1998 on the back of a highly centrist manifesto. This polarisation has meant that whether in power or not, UKIP can succeed in achieving many of their policy preferences by proxy as the Conservatives seek to win the hearts and minds of their more conservative supporters that they would likely leak to UKIP. Similarly for the Liberal Democrats, their encompassing politics of the centre allowed them to make huge strides in the last general election. However, they have been badly damaged by being the junior party in a coalition for the last number of years. No one will blame them for seizing the opportunity to have a period in power to implement some of their manifesto, but their swing voters will more than likely abandon them for something a little more neutral at the polls this time around.

So what is the potential impact of this changed political landscape?

As a single vote has yet to be cast, there is still a chance that nothing will greatly change. Realistically, what is likely to happen is that despite an electoral system that is setup to almost protect the sanctity of single party government, through single seat constituencies and first past the post system, that no single party will have anything like a sufficient number of seats to even form a minority government. This means that there will inevitably be some horse trading in order to reach the magic number, where pre-election pledges are forgotten and some manifesto items severely diluted in exchange for a seat in power. While this is nothing new for Irish people as there has been a history of coalitions and the ebb and flow junior parties in these coalitions taking a pasting in the immediate aftermath of their period in power (PD’s, Greens, Labour??) this kind of situation is certainly something new for the UK electorate which conversely may lead to polarisation to the left or right.

The likely outcomes?

Based on the polling two scenarios are starting to look equally feasible,

  • A right wing coalition of Conservatives, UKIP (and possibly Liberal Democrats if required) with the support of the Democratic Unionist Party.
  • A centre left coalition of Labour & SNP with the support of Plaid Cymru, Green Party and SDLP

What are the potential ramifications for Ireland of either of these scenarios?

A  right wing coalition would more than likely lead to a renegotiation of the UK’s position within the EU and its adherence to the rules thereof. What the Conservatives have committed to is a straight Yes/No referendum on ongoing EU membership within 18 months, UKIP would certainly be supportive of this and it would appear that the Lib Dems are positioned to drop any opposition to such a referendum in return for retention of power. On the basis that they have sufficient support to make up a majority government and assuming continuing policy support through their support base, it is entirely feasible that the UK could opt to leave the EU. The consequences for Ireland of any such result are grave indeed. Figures produced just last week outline that the UK is the destination for more than one third of all Irish exports. A UK outside of the rules and beneficial trading environment of the EU could place Irish exports at significant risk in terms of competitiveness. From a simple logistical perspective it would also create the UK’s only land border with the EU and has the potential to place significant barriers to cross border trade on the Island of Ireland. Whilst there is no certainty on how this may manifest itself and when, a period of uncertainty will create a challenging market environment for Irish trade with the UK (not to mention to UK’s ability to act as a safety valve for Irish workers in times of economic challenges domestically)

A centre left coalition presents an entirely different dynamic. Despite protestations to the contrary it is inconceivable that the Labour Party will forgo power for another 5 years simply to avoid working with the SNP and it is entirely unlikely that they will be able to cobble together sufficient support in the other non-right of centre parties to make a workable majority. Under such a scenario we will undoubtedly see a push for greater federalism within the UK with greater ability to set taxation and policy in a wider variety of areas. We already know that the SNP view the Irish model as something to work towards in terms of corporate taxation regimes, pro-european approach and attracting high value FDI to an English speaking location within the EU. This would create an opportunity for Wales to act similarly and all of sudden some of Ireland’s USPs are under threat from our near neighbours.

Essentially, the enormous change that is potentially coming in the UK political landscape will impact Ireland directly within a short period of years. In the short term I believe that having our neighbours in the same club is hugely beneficial to Ireland given the fraternal relationship between the UK and Ireland and the impediments that would come into place by virtue of the UK leaving the EU. I suspect however that the right wing will hold onto power in this election and this creates a period of enormous potential change for Ireland in terms of our relationship with our nearest neighbour that will potentially draw us closer to the EU and under the influence of the key power brokers there.

Two things are for certain, single seat constituencies and first past the post remain one of the most undemocratic approaches to representation of the diversity of views but it still appears have been somewhat overcome this time around, and also, things will never be the same again after UK GE 2015, for more than just those in the UK!

**Disclaimer: This is my personal blog, and the content and opinions offering herein in no way reflect or claim to be representative of the opinions of my employer (pro or contrary)**

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