10th May 2021

Ireland heads to the polls amid strained EU relations

  • Formerly the poster-child of EU success, Ireland's relations with the 27-member bloc have become less easy (Photo: topgold)

Irish citizens head to the polls on Friday (25 February), their economy in tatters and once-strong relations with the European Union under strain.

Uppermost in the minds of many voters will be last November's €85 billion bail-out package from the EU and IMF, with anger over the loan's punitive interest rate and deficit-cutting requirements mixed with dismay over Ireland's fallen stature among its European partners.

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"Ireland went from dependence, to interdependence, to dependence again," University College Dublin academic Brigid Laffan told EUobserver, referring to Ireland's weak economy when it first joined the European Economic Community in 1973, the rise of the Celtic Tiger and its recent implosion.

"Most Irish on balance understand that we need the EU, but there is a sense that the current government did not negotiate a good deal on the bail-out," added Professor Laffan, author of a 2008 book on Irish-EU relations.

Analysts broadly agree that the loan's punitive six-percent interest rate will saddle Irish citizens with debt repayments for years to come, while many in the electorate also feel foreign investors in Irish banks are being unfairly protected from suffering writedowns.

"You just have to look at the numbers," says Carsten Brzeski, a senior economist with ING. "As long as the country's nominal GDP is lower than the loan's interest rate, then debt will increase."

A promise to seek better lending terms has been a key aspect of the Fine Gael election campaign, the centre-right party expected to come out top when voting ends at 10pm on Friday evening.

Conscious of where the power lies on that decision, party leader Enda Kenny has recently paid trips to Brussels and Berlin in an effort to drum up support. The issue is politically sensitive however. "It's hard to see how the German government can sell the idea at home without getting something from Ireland in exchange," says Mr Brzeski.

Added to bitterness over the bail-out, a number of Irish politicians have accused the European Union of being partly to blame for the country's economic demise. This view was recently expressed by former Irish Prime Minister and recent EU ambassador to Washington John Bruton in a letter to European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.

The suggestion, taken up by some Irish MEPs in the European Parliament, drew a stinging rebuke from Brussels and has left others working in the European capital feeling uneasy.

"Irish people cannot say: 'You fellows in Europe should not have lent so much to Irish banks, you should have known we were not regulating them correctly,'" says John Temple Lang, an Irish lawyer working in Brussels who has seen the country's standing fall in recent years.

Fine Gael's Mr Kenny has indicated his desire to repair this reputational damage and has hired former Irish MEP and European Parliament President Pat Cox to help run Dublin's negotiations with Brussels.

As part of a promise to "hit the ground running", Mr Kenny says all Irish ambassadors will be temporarily recalled to Dublin, if Fine Gael is elected, for a briefing session on how to improve Ireland's image.

Fianna Fail, the Irish political party which has dominated the nation's politics since the party's foundation in 1926, is set for a drubbing of historical proportions on Friday. Some predict the popular party, whose success in recent decades has been linked to its lack of a fixed ideology, could take an increasingly eurosceptic turn in a bid to win votes in the future.

The republican Sinn Fein party, still closely linked in the minds of many to the north's former IRA paramilitary group, looks set to increase on its current five seats in the south's 166-seat parliament.

A strong campaigner against the Lisbon Treaty, the left-wing party has been damaged by allegations of double-standards however as it implements a series of spending cutbacks in the north.


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