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In Vardakar, Ireland may be about to have its first openly gay leader

Leo Varadkar now leads among TDs to win the Fine Gael leadership and, with it, Ireland’s premiership. (Facebook)

Among the European countries on the 2017 political agenda, Ireland figures relatively low. 

Ostensibly, Ireland may not hold its next general election until 2021. Irish politics have so far avoided the kind of xenophobic, hard-right politics that are roiling larger countries. Nor (other than the republican Sinn Féin) has the country succumbed to the kind of hard-left politics that have emerged in much of southern Europe in the aftermath of the eurozone debt crisis.

But as Enda Kenny, Ireland’s prime minister (known in Ireland as the Taoiseach) prepares to step down after more than six years in power, the country may have its first openly gay leader within weeks.

Leo Varadkar, a 38-year-old rising star and the son of an Indian immigrant (and, like his father, a doctor by trade) who represents the pro-market wing of the liberal, center-right Fine Gael, is now the favorite in the party’s first leadership election in 15 years. First elected to the Dáil (the lower house of the Irish parliament) in 2007, Varadkar immediately joined Kenny’s government in 2011 as transport, tourism and sport minister. From 2014 until last May, he served as health minister, and he currently serves as minister for social protection.

Simon Coveney, Ireland’s housing minister, hopes he can come from behind to win the Fine Gael leadership on the strength of the party faithful.

His opponent is the 44-year-old (and openly straight) Simon Coveney, a scion of Irish politics, who got his start in politics at age 26 when, in a 1998, he won a by-election to replace his late father, Hugh Coveney. He has remained a fixture of the Irish parliament (or the European parliament — as an MEP from 2004 to 2007) ever since. Like Vardakar, Coveney has held three ministerial posts in the Kenny era — first as agriculture, food and marine minister, then defence minister, and currently minister for housing, planning, community and local government. Though Coveney is relatively pro-market, he has emphasized the need to combat rising inequality.

Vardakar is the flashier choice, a more radical figure with more panache, while Coveney is viewed as somewhat more wooden, though a policy whiz and a more seasoned official. While they will shy away from actively endorsing Coveney, both Kenny and the current finance minister Michael Noonan are likely to support Coveney.

If his lead holds, Vardakar would represent a far greater rupture from Kenny for Fine Gael. He has said he would re-christen Fine Gael as the ‘United Ireland’ Party, and he has promised a series of tax cuts, pledging that Fine Gael would be the party for people who ‘get out of bed early in the morning.’ Among his policy positions is a relatively radical step to reduce the ability of public workers to engage in strikes.
Continue reading In Vardakar, Ireland may be about to have its first openly gay leader

Why Northern Ireland is the most serious obstacle to Article 50’s invocation

Few Protestants or Catholics want to go back to the days of a land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. (BBC)
Few Protestants or Catholics want to go back to the days of a land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. (BBC)

When pro-Leave campaigners argued that, by leaving the European Union, Great Britain could ‘take back control,’ one of the clear things over which Brexit proponents seem to want to take control was national borders.northernirelandUnited Kingdom Flag Icon

Given that Great Britain itself is an island, that’s mostly a theoretical proposition, because you can’t step across the border into England, Scotland and Wales — their ‘borders’ are through their seaports and airports.

That’s not true in Northern Ireland, the only region in the United Kingdom that does share a land border with another European Union member-state. It’s also one of the most delicate tripwires for British prime minister Theresa May in her dutiful quest to invoke Article 50 of the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty next year and begin negotiations for a British EU withdrawal.

Scotland has garnered more headlines because Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon has argued that Scots, who voted strongly for Remain, deserve a second independence referendum  when the British government finally does leave the European Union. But if ‘Remain’ proponents are looking to the one part of the United Kingdom that could impossibly prevent Article 50’s invocation, they should look to Northern Ireland, where Brexit could unravel two decades of peace, and where Brexit is already causing some anxiety about the region’s future.

May, just days after replacing David Cameron at 10 Downing Street, visited Belfast earlier this week in a bid to reassure both unionists and republicans. But it’s not clear that May’s first journey to Northern Ireland, which preceded a meeting with Ireland’s leader a day later, was a success.

May boldly claimed that Brexit need not result in the return of a ‘hard border’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. But settling Northern Ireland’s Brexit border issue is virtually intractable for the May government — at least without alienating one of three crucial groups of people: first, the mostly Catholic republicans of Northern Ireland; second, the most Protestant unionists of Northern Ireland or finally, those Brexit supports across the entire country who voted ‘Leave’ in large part to close UK borders to further immigration.

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As in Scotland, Northern Ireland’s voters narrowly titled against Brexit — 55.78% supported ‘Remain,’ while just 44.22% supported ‘Leave.’ Generally speaking, republicans widely supported ‘Remain,’ and unionists leaned toward ‘Leave,’ including first minister Arlene Foster. Continue reading Why Northern Ireland is the most serious obstacle to Article 50’s invocation

Sinn Fein joins list of surging anti-austerity forces in Europe

Mary Lou McDonald, the deputy leader of Sinn Féin, represents a new post-IRA, anti-austerity face. (Facebook).
Mary Lou McDonald, the deputy leader of Sinn Féin, represents a new post-IRA, anti-austerity face. (Facebook).

In April, Ireland will celebrate the centennial anniversary of the Easter Rising, the failed rebellion of an overpowered band of Irish republicans.Ireland Icon

The heavy-handed response of British troops ended up martyring the republican cause, their lethal overreaction ultimately changing, and hardening, Irish public opinion in favor of independence from the United Kingdom.

Under the penumbra of this year’s centennial celebrations, Irish voters will go to the polls on February 26, after Enda Kenny, Ireland’s Taoiseach (prime minister) announced last week the dissolution of the Irish parliament, the Dáil, to ask voters to reelect his center-right Fine Gael, along with its junior coalition partner, Ireland’s social democratic Labour Party.

But polls show that the party with the most momentum is Sinn Féin, which hopes to capitalize on several factors toward what would be a historic victory. Hoping to peel off disaffected Labour voters, Sinn Féin might even be within striking distance of first place, given that no single party will come close to an absolute majority. Continue reading Sinn Fein joins list of surging anti-austerity forces in Europe

A detailed look at the European parliamentary election results (part 3)

Nearly a week after the European elections, the reverberations are still shaking the entire continent, on at least two levels — the consequences of the historic level of eurosceptic parties elected across Europe and in terms of the growing battle between the European Parliament and the European Council over electing the next European Commission president. European_Union

In the first part of a Suffragio series examining the results of the May 25 European parliamentary elections, I focused on the five most populous countries in the European Union: the United Kingdom and France, where eurosceptic parties won the greatest share of the vote; Germany, where chancellor Angela Merkel won another strong victory; Italy, where prime minister Matteo Renzi won a near-landslide mandate just three months into his premiership; and Spain, where both traditional parties lost support to a growing constellation of anti-austerity movements — so much so that Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, the leader of the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), Spain’s traditional center-left party, resigned

In the second part, I examined the results in nine more countries — Poland, Romania, The Netherlands, Belgium, Greece, the Czech Republic, Portugal, Hungary and Sweden.

In the third and final part, I examine the results in the remaining 14 countries of the European Union. Continue reading A detailed look at the European parliamentary election results (part 3)

Irish vote to retain the Seanad deals blow to Kenny, who pledges parliamentary reform instead

Kiss me, I'm David Norris

Irish voters delight in contrarianism.Ireland Icon

When Irish voters were supposed to endorse the Treaty of Nice in 2001, they rejected it instead.  After nine months of renegotiation with the European Union to secure recognition of Ireland’s traditional military neutrality, Dublin held a second referendum and Irish voters adopted the revised Nice treaty.  Irish voters did the same thing in June 2008, when they rejected the Treaty of Lisbon by an equally narrow margin (again, Dublin set about renegotiating and held a successful referendum shortly thereafter).

When Irish voters, suffering under severe budget cuts and tax increases, may have had a gripe with last year’s European ‘fiscal compact’ (not a treaty, in the formal sense, because of the United Kingdom’s veto), they instead approved the fiscal compact by a wide margin in the June 2012 referendum.

In Sunday’s referendum, Ireland’s stubborn voters were expected to vote to abolish the Seanad Éireann (Irish senate), the upper house of the Oireachtas, Ireland’s parliament, on the promise of a future with fewer politicians instead of more.

Political leaders across all lines — the Irish left, the Irish center-right and even Irish nationalists — supported moving to a unicameral system to cut up to $20 million in annual costs and to eliminate a chamber that’s largely seen as unrepresentative, undemocratic and wasteful, while using the opportunity to register disgust with a political elite that remains unpopular in the wake of a sovereign debt crisis, the failure of Irish banks, and a humiliating European bailout that has imposed a new era of austerity in a country that, only a decade ago, was known as the ‘Celtic Tiger’ for its surging economy.

But perhaps the Irish electorate decided to register its contrarianism at the very notion of being perceived as anti-politician contrarians.

For whatever reason, not enough Irish voters elected to abolish the Seanad, and the October 4 referendum was defeated by a narrow margin of 51.7% voting ‘No,’ and just 48.3% voting ‘Yes.’

The result broke down on largely regional lines.  Voters in Munster and Connacht in the west of the country largely voted to abolish the Irish senate, while the northern state of Ulster and the eastern state of Leinster (including all of the constituencies in Dublin) voted to retain the senate.  In particular, Ulster voters worried that the elimination of the Irish senate would also eliminate the one forum where Northern Irish voices have been historically heard within the government of the Republic of Ireland.

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The result left the Taoiseach (Ireland’s prime minster), Enda Kenny, with perhaps the biggest defeat since taking power in March 2011.  Kenny campaigned on the promise of eliminating the Irish senate, and the referendum fulfills a promise to bring the issue to a direct referendum.  But as Kenny said following the result: ‘Sometimes in politics you get a wallop.’

The defeat is another warning sign of the growing unpopularity of Kenny’s government — though voters blamed Fianna Fáil for the initial Irish banking crisis and its aftermath, they seem to be holding Fine Gael responsible for the austerity that’s followed since the 2011 elections.

A recent October 1 RTE poll showed that Kenny’s liberal center-right Fine Gael has plummeted to 26% support (after winning 36.1% in the last election), while its coalition partner, the progressive Labour Party wins just 6% support, the lowest level in decades (after winning 19.4% in 2011).  Though the conservative center-right Fianna Fáil has regained some ground at 22% (up from 17.4% in 2011), the real winner is the Irish nationalist party Sinn Féin, which polled 23% support (up from 9.9% in 2011).

Among the supporters of abolishing the Irish senate were Fine Gael, Labour, Sinn Féin and Ireland’s Socialist Party.  Politically speaking, the result was a victory for Ireland’s most successful post-independence party, the conservative center-right Fianna Fáil, which suffered a historical loss in the 2011 election.   Fianna Fáil campaigned against eliminating the Irish senate in favor of reforming it, arguing that it served as a necessary watchdog against poor government.  Kenny had received criticism prior to the vote for refusing to debate Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, and those criticisms amplified in the aftermath of the referendum’s defeat.

It’s also a victory for many of Ireland’s longtime independent senators, some of whom are incredibly colorful and thoughtful figures, including David Norris (pictured above kissing a supporter), a scholar of James Joyce and Ireland’s first major openly gay presidential candidateContinue reading Irish vote to retain the Seanad deals blow to Kenny, who pledges parliamentary reform instead

Should Ireland abolish its Seanad (Senate) and go unicameral?

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Irish voters will determine on Friday whether to eliminate the Seanad Éireann (Irish senate), the upper house of the Oireachtas, Ireland’s parliament.

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Before you think that this is such a transformative step in Irish governance, it’s important to keep in mind that the Irish senate doesn’t have nearly the powers of, say, the United States senate because it doesn’t have veto power over Irish legislation — at worst, the Irish senate can delay lawmaking, not bring it to a halt.  Furthermore, its members aren’t directly elected by the people, leading to charges that the upper house is a wasteful, undemocratic, unrepresentative anachronism.

If, as expected, Irish voters approve the referendum, the Irish senate will cease to exist as of the next Irish general election, which must take place before 2016.

It’s one of the campaign pledges that Taoiseach Enda Kenny (pictured above) promised in advance of the February 2011 parliamentary elections that swept his liberal center-right Fine Gael into power, in coalition with the social democratic Labour Party.  In an odd-bedfellows coalition, most of Ireland’s major parties support abolishing the Senate, including Fine Gael and Labour, but also the Irish nationalist Sinn Féin.  Only the conservative center-right Fianna Fáil, which suffered a historic defeat in the 2011 election, opposes the referendum and prefers to retain the senate, albeit a reformed, more representative, more productive senate.

The system by which the upper house’s 60 senators are appointed is truly anachronistic — the Taoiseach appoints 11 and graduates of the University of Dublin and the National University of Ireland are each entitled to elect three senators.  The remaining 43 are nominated from five ‘vocational panels’ that span the public/administrative, agricultural/fishing, cultural/educational, industrial/commercial, and labour sectors.  In practice, this means that the Irish senate is  where a lot of failed political candidates land.  The remaining house, the Dáil Éireann, is composed of 166 deputies.

Given that Ireland has been rocked by economic crisis following the 2008-09 financial crisis that saw Ireland nationalize some of its banks and assume their obligations, Kenny and other supporters of the referendum argue that the Irish senate is an unnecessary and undemocratic expense for such a small country as Ireland (with 4.6 million people), especially in light of its 40-year membership in the European Union, which remains responsible for an increasing amount of regulatory standards within Ireland.

Many Irish voters agree — an IPSOS poll earlier this week showed 44% favored abolition, 27% opposed abolition, while 21% were unsure, though when undecideds had to choose, the pro-abolition side won 62% to 38%.

Although countries don’t abolish entire legislative chambers every day, it’s not wholly unprecedented, either.  New Zealand abolished its unelected Legislative Council in 1950, Denmark abolished its upper house in 1953 and Sweden followed suit in 1970.  Generally speaking, unicameral parliaments are more common on the periphery of the European Union than in its core — they exist in Portugal, all of the Scandinavian states (including Iceland), all three Balkan state, Slovakia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Greece, Cyprus and Ukraine.

The arguments for unicameralism, generally, mirror those that Kenny and ‘Yes’ supporters are making in Ireland.   Continue reading Should Ireland abolish its Seanad (Senate) and go unicameral?

Ireland votes ‘yes’ to fiscal compact in referendum

The count is underway, but it looks certain that the fiscal compact will pass yesterday’s Irish referendum — by around a 60-40 margin:

According to results received at the central count centre in Dublin Castle to date, 57.6 per cent voted Yes, while 42.4 per cent voted No, when spoiled or invalid votes are excluded. Turnout is in the region of 50 per cent.

Of the 15 constituencies to submit full results, 12 have recorded a Yes vote. Full constituency-by-constituency results are available here.

Earlier this week, I looked at some of the reasons why Irish voters seemed more inclined to accept this treaty on the first vote, after rejecting the Treaty of Nice in 2001 and the Lisbon Treaty in 2008: in no insignificant terms, a ‘no’ vote would have perhaps caused international investors to flee Ireland and maybe has caused Ireland to be unable to access the European Stability Mechanism.  Also, given that the treaty need not be unanimously ratified, Ireland would have had no ability to reject the treaty in favor of additional concessions from Brussels.
At a time when anti-austerity forces are gathering momentum across Europe, the treaty vote in the tiny country, hamstrung by a European bailout, is not going to stem that momentum.  But it is a significant victory for the mainstream Irish political parties (who have finally won a pro-EU vote for the first time since 1997) and for Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny and his government: the message Irish voters are sending today, both to European leaders and the markets seems to be, “Not to worry, Ireland’s not Greece.”
It is a defeat for Gerry Adams and Sinn Féin — Adams’s vocal opposition to the treaty did not convince Irish voters in the face of such strong arguments (some might say blackmail) from the markets and from mainstream politicians.

Irish set to approve fiscal compact in Thursday referendum

Ireland’s feisty voters, which have developed an art form out of defeating European Union treaties, still seem likely to support the fiscal compact treaty in Thursday’s referendum:

Polls show the ‘yes’ vote in the lead — the latest Irish Times poll shows 39% in favor, 30% opposed, with 22% undecided and 9% not voting.  Other polls have shown even strong support for the ‘yes’ camp.

After the Sturm und Drang of May 2012’s electoral wave, which has seen voters support anti-austerity politicians from Germany to Greece, the fiscal compact seems to have less momentum than ever.

So it would be a plucky twist of fate if Ireland, which has become the bête noire of EU treaty making — its constitution provides that a EU treaty is an amendment of the Irish constitution and, consequently, must be approved in a referendum — gives a thumbs-up to a fiscal compact that might never go into law EU-wide and would result in a loss of Irish sovereignty with respect to its own fiscal policymaking.

Furthermore, over the course of Ireland’s four decades in the EU, Irish voters have voted on six treaties, and in each case, the initial pro-treaty vote has decreased for each new treaty:

In each of the last two efforts, for the Treaty of Nice in 2001 and the Treaty of Lisbon in 2008, Irish voters initially defeated the treaty, Irish negotiators worked to attain new concessions from the EU and each treaty was subsequently ratified in a second referendum.

The fiscal compact, cobbled together by Merkel and then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy in December 2011 amid soaring bond prices for Spanish and Italian debt, would limit each EU member state to a structural budget deficit of just 0.5% of GDP.  That target seemed unrealistic in November, but seems even more so today, with many European economies still stagnant (or in recession).  Newly elected French president François Hollande has called for revisiting the terms of the fiscal compact during and after his election.

So the final ratification of the fiscal compact is far from certain, with or without Ireland.  As the UK and the Czech Republic opted out of the fiscal compact, the fiscal compact is not, as a technical matter, a formal EU treaty.  Accordingly, it needs ratification from just 12 eurozone members before January 1, 2013 to go into effect.

As of today, it has received just three conditional ratifications. In Slovenia and Portugal, national parliaments have approved the fiscal compact, but the ratifications are not formally complete without presidential approval.  The only other country to ratify the fiscal compact is Greece, whose May parliamentary elections were so inconclusive that the country must hold a second set in June, which could very well result in electing Europe’s most anti-austerity government.

So why, in the face of so many reasons to junk the fiscal compact, which may not even be ratified by the rest of Europe, are Ireland’s voters set to approve it on Thursday? Continue reading Irish set to approve fiscal compact in Thursday referendum

Will the Irish referendum stop the latest EU treaty?

It’s not as if the European Union needed to plan another landmine to explode the agreed “fiscal compact” from last December which, broadly speaking, would require EU countries to maintain a structural deficit of less than 0.5% of nominal GDP annually. 

With the anti-austerity candidate leading the polls in France and with Greek parliamentary elections scheduled for the spring, there is no shortage of political events that could cause yet another crisis in the eurozone.  And after so many countries (including Germany!) violated the 1997 Stability and Growth Pact’s budget deficit rule (no more than 3% of GDP) throughout the 2000s, you might remain skeptical that any country would hew for very long to a 0.5% budget rule.

So the last thing anyone in Brussels wanted to hear was Dublin’s insistence last week that the fiscal compact will require an Irish referendum prior to its ratification.

Yet last week, Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny announced that, on advice from the Irish attorney general, Ireland will be required to hold a referendum on the fiscal compact treaty.  It was previously thought (hoped?) that an Irish referendum might not be necessary.  Given that British prime minister David Cameron announced that the UK would veto the amendment of existing EU treaties, and the decision of the Czech Republic not to join the final version, the treaty is not a formal EU treaty, but an intergovernmental treaty among the remaining 25 EU members.

Under Crotty v. An Taoiseach in 1987, the Supreme Court of Ireland decided that any significant changes to any EU treaties to which Ireland accedes require an amendment to the Irish constitution prior to ratification, and therefore subject to a referendum.

Currently, polls indicate that 60% of Irish voters support the treaty, but the referendum date has not yet been announced and opponents will have ample time to mobilize.

If you look at the trajectory of the first-shot Irish referenda on various EU treaties, you would not necessarily be optimistic:

Continue reading Will the Irish referendum stop the latest EU treaty?