British prime minister Theresa May’s calling for a snap general election creates fresh uncertainty for Ireland in the wake of Brexit, Housing Minister Simon Coveney has warned.
Mr Coveney, one of two main contenders to be the next taoiseach, said the calling of the election and a possible power vacuum in the North meant it was all the more important that Ireland hold a “firm position” on Brexit. Ms May will today hope to secure a two-thirds House of Commons majority to allow the election be held on June 8.
Speaking to the Irish Examiner, Mr Coveney said Ms May’s expected victory could “embolden” her to negotiate harder during upcoming talks on Brexit.
His warning came as Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Ms May talked by phone last night, after the Tory leader made the shock announcement earlier of a snap election.
The vote has also increased the focus on the Fine Gael leadership change, with both Mr Coveney and his main rival, Leo Varadkar, agreeing it is logical and expected that Mr Kenny step down before summer so his successor is appointed.
Asked if the summer was a reasonable time to expect a change of leader, Mr Varadkar said: “I have always said the timeline is a decision for Enda Kenny. I don’t know Enda Kenny’s mind.”
However, he then said: “I think, with new leaders being elected across Europe, there is a logic there in a particular timeframe in having a new leader in place before the summer. The timeframe is entirely a decision for the Taoiseach.”
In announcing the general election, Ms May claimed divisions at Westminster risked hampering the Brexit negotiations. With a limited majority of 17 MPs in the parliament, she said she wanted “unity” when talks on Brexit begin.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, whose party is in turmoil and far behind the Tories in the polls, said he welcomed the decision for a vote. However, Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon said Ms May’s decision was for “selfish, narrow and party political interests”.
Polls put the Conservatives at 43%, in a position some say compares to that of Margaret Thatcher’s in the early 1980s. A decision to go to the polls also means the consequences of Brexit may not be borne out until 2020, at the next scheduled British election.
However, the snap election risks putting Ireland as well as the question of the North in a more difficult position.
Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan told RTÉ the vote would complicate the “fragile nature” of efforts in the North to agree a new power-sharing deal.
With a new deadline for agreement at Stormont by May 2, there is a possibility of further fresh elections there coinciding with those in Westminster. Mr Flanagan ruled out the Government supporting any direct rule from Westminster.
Mr Coveney though highlighted the “uncertainty” for the North and Ireland over the Westminster election.
“It adds uncertainty in the context of Brexit,” he said. “Obviously I hope it doesn’t do that. Clearly the Westminster election is going to be about Brexit. It is in the North’s interests to have an assembly up and running [by then].
“Ms May is looking for a stronger negotiating mandate. She wants to face down opposition in Britain.”
Ms May would be “emboldened” if she increased the Conservative vote, he said, and then “negotiate harder” during the Brexit talks.
“It is yet another uncertainty,” he said. “All Ireland can do is maintain a firm position. The more uncertainty there is over the Westminster elections or the North’s assembly, the more important it is for Ireland to be consistent.”
He said the June 8 vote would unlikely alter the Fine Gael leadership changeover.“I trust Enda Kenny’s judgment. I think it will happen well in advance of the summer.”
Mr Varadkar also said the pending change of leader in Fine Gael will not lead to a snap election here in Ireland.
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