Trailing the surge of Eurosceptic populism that is presently creeping upon Europe, a new political party has emerged in Ireland which seeks to follow the UK and take Ireland out of the EU.
Irexit Freedom—as the party is known officially—still exists in nascent form, but with crucial elections looming in both the EU and (likely) in the Republic in the next year, it might have a unique opportunity to uncover a wealth of untapped political capital.
Though only established in September, the origins of Irexit Freedom can be traced at least to the financial collapse in 2008. The arrival of EU bailouts and the government’s consequent austerity cuts caused feelings of hostility towards the EU to strengthen considerably, a sharpening of the public attitude which underpinned the unprecedented realignment of the Irish party system in 2011. Although Euroscepticism dimmed as the country crawled out of the recession, an uneven recovery has permitted a latent sense of disdain for the EU to linger.
Inspired in party by the victory of Donald Trump and the affirmative Brexit referendum in 2016, journalist Hermann Kelly resolved to form Irexit Freedom in order to capture what he believed was a genuine sense of Euroscepticism inside a single political entity. Although Kelly claims that the party is neither left- nor right-wing, it is notably hostile to immigration, it frequently rails against the political and financial elites, and it demands public bodies to hold the media to account. These are all themes that have been championed by right-wing populists across the West, perhaps most persistently by President Trump.
There is small appetite in Ireland for a total withdrawal from the EU. This is due in large part to the population’s recognition that the country owes much of its contemporary development to direct EU investment in the country, free access to the European market, and a deep supply of foreign labor, all in addition to innumerable indirect benefits it’s received through membership. Nevertheless, persistent social issues like soaring housing costs and widespread homelessness have occurred against the backdrop of the recession (and, indeed, they are partly a consequence of it), and these are looked at by Eurosceptics as evidence of the harmful effects of over-reliance on the EU. These are the attitudes that have fueled nagging calls for Irexit since 2008 and which have finally produced a formal party dedicated to this aim.
Despite lacking public support on a wide-scale, Irexit Freedom will be an important party to watch in the coming two years. Its first opportunity to showcase its platform before the public will be the May 2019 EU elections. Already billed as one of the most significant elections in the history of the bloc, Irexit Freedom will hope to ride the wave of Euroscepticism which will no doubt shape these elections into respectability.
Few wonder that this party can muster anywhere close to the level of support currently enjoyed by other Eurosceptic parties, but the election will still serve as an important barometer because it will help observers gauge the level of support for Irexit in the country. Importantly, this election will be the first to occur after the UK formally leaves the EU, and so voters will go to the polls with a clearer sense of what Brexit means for them personally. If we assume that Brexit is as harmful to Irish economic interests as most commentators predict, it might convince voters that the only way to maintain the health of the Irish economy is to leave the bloc completely and enter into a new trading relationship with the UK. All of this would work in favor of Irexit Freedom and would see it earn a modest degree of support in the European Parliament.
Domestically, Irexit Freedom has little prospect in any foreseeable political climate to make a direct impact on Irish politics, but it might draw enough attention to force other parties to change tact. This is particularly true for Sinn Fein.
Irexit Freedom poses a unique challenge to Sinn Fein because it is one of the few parties that can present a legitimate challenge to its current monopoly on republican nationalism. The party frames its arguments against the EU in terms of freedom, independence, and national sovereignty, and its ability (or, at least, its intention) to deliver maximum economic autonomy can be reasonably counted as a measure of greater independence which rivals Sinn Fein's own nationalist ambitions.
Perhaps more importantly, Irexit Freedom principally targets working class and rural voters (Sinn Fein's traditional base), yet it possesses the unique capacity to tap into a feeling that is currently unrepresented by all of the major parties in Ireland. For this reason, Sinn Fein will watch Irexit Freedom closely and it will be especially receptive to its performances in the upcoming elections. If the party notches surprise victories and uncovers a genuinely favorable attitude towards Irexit, we can imagine Sinn Fein hardening its position towards the EU and moving closer to Irexit Freedom's in order to undercut the new party's support.
Though still unlikely, this outcome is actually quite plausible. Sinn Fein is the most politically opportune party in Ireland, and it has demonstrated several times in recent history that it is willing to shift its policy positions (sometimes radically) in order to expand its reach and broaden its appeal. This has allowed the party to move from the margins into the political mainstream, and if Irexit Freedom does pose a significant enough threat to its present position, expect Sinn Fein to soften its stance on Irexit and adopt some of the more Eurosceptic positions of the new party.
Indeed, Sinn Fein is well-equipped to make this transition. In its earlier days, the party was one of the harshest critics of the original European Community (EC), and it was staunchly opposed to Ireland's application to join the bloc in the early 1970s. Furthermore, the modern iteration of Sinn Fein took a hardline approach to the EU in the aftermath of the recession and was especially critical of the government's austerity cuts, though it stopped short then of rejecting the EU outright.
Given this history, it is easier to imagine Sinn Fein adjusting its present stance on Irexit and the EU, in general, to account for a legitimate challenge posed by Irexit Freedom. Thus, while on its own Irexit Freedom will almost certainly have no direct impact on Irish politics, it might have an indirect effect by forcing the larger and more consequential parties to shape their policies around the new party's stance, potentially inserting a strain of Euroscepticism into the highest reaches of power. Of course, all of this depends completely on Irexit Freedom's performance in the upcoming elections, and it will be interesting to watch how the public reacts when Irexit is presented before them as a legitimate policy option for the first time.
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