15th May 2024

EU Elections: the issues and trends which will define Ireland’s polling day


The ninth European Parliament term witnessed two of the most defining crises to have taken place in Europe since the Second World War, the beginning of The Ukraine War and a global pandemic. Both of which have shown little regard for Ireland’s position as a geographically isolated island on the western edge of Europe in their socio-economic and political consequences.

Through the Irish lens, both crises proved to be compounded by the exit of Britain from the European Union. The upcoming European Elections, taking place on June 7th in Ireland, will be heavily impacted by our own domestic politics, alongside broader trends which span the Union. Notably, 69% of Irish voters say they are interested in the election, well above the EU average, perhaps indicating a higher turnout on polling day than many may have initially suspected. 

The Ukraine War posed a fundamental challenge to Ireland’s long-held policy of military neutrality. [Photo credit: ZUMA Press, Inc]

Ireland and the State of the Union 

Ireland has increasingly seen itself to be at the heart of the European project, with 88% of the general population supporting membership of the EU, one of the most staunchly pro-European nations amongst the 27 member states. During the Covid-19 crisis, only 16% of Irish people polled stated that the European Commission was dishonest in its handling of the pandemic, the lowest in the Union, while almost half of Irish Citizens rated the European Commission between 7 to 10 out of 10 for their competence in dealing with the pandemic, well above the EU average of 39%. As a result of these factors, Ireland generally enjoys constructive relations with the European Commission. 

The outbreak of The Ukraine War in February of 2022 also posed a fundamental challenge to Ireland’s long-held policy of military neutrality, with the government repeatedly stating that Ireland is not politically neutral when it comes to its view on Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. Ireland has to date welcomed almost 105,000 Ukrainian refugees under the EU Temporary Protection Directive and contributed €212 million in financial assistance, with €4.164 million in non-lethal military assistance being allocated to Ukraine under the European Peace Facility to support the EU Military Assistance Mission in support of Ukraine (EUMAM Ukraine). 

With increasing pressure for the establishment of a European Defense Commissioner and the ongoing direct donation of ammunition to Ukraine through the European Commission, a segment of Irish voters may begin to feel uncomfortable with Europe’s move towards militarisation outside of NATO. Additionally, the views expressed by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on the Israel-Palestine conflict differ profoundly from the vast majority of the Irish electorate and may trouble a significant portion of voters. 

Brexit also marked a landmark moment in Ireland’s history as a young democracy, with the loss of our largest historical trading partner from the EU. Former Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has since admitted that the Government did not anticipate Ireland’s economic resilience and strong growth in the aftermath of Brexit 

There is now a widespread perception throughout all major political parties, both in government and opposition, that European Union membership was a significant strategic asset in Ireland’s ability to prosper despite the Brexit disruption, thereby solidifying a staunchly pro-European political atmosphere.  

Ireland’s position within the Union is strong on two fronts; firstly, there is little credible or widespread opposition in Ireland to the European agenda. Secondly, Ireland enjoys strong relations throughout Europe and its EU institutions despite its small population, including deeply positive diplomatic relationships with its two major powers, in the form of Germany and most especially France. 

Brexit marked a landmark moment in Ireland’s history as a young democracy. [Photo credit: Public Domain Dedication]

The issues and trends that will define 2024 

Migration creating a new paradigm shift 

42% of Irish voters rank migration and asylum as a key issue, compared to an EU average of 24%. The emergence of asylum and migration as a key topic for Ireland’s EU elections represents a paradigm shift within the Irish political landscape, which has traditionally focused in on health, economy, education and housing as top priorities. Figures read before the Public Accounts Committee in April suggest that Ireland could see 20,000 asylum seekers seek international protection in 2024, compared to 4,782 in 2019. Given the continuing media coverage of IP applicants sleeping rough near the International Protection Office in Dublin City Centre throughout April and into May, and growing discontent with Fine Gael Minister for Justice Helen McEntee, this will remain a visible priority issue for Irish voters. This will likely be to the detriment to Government parties, as demonstrated in the rapid rise in support for independents in rural areas. The EU Pact on Migration and Asylum, which was recently narrowly passed by the European Parliament, will also ensure that immigration becomes a central force in shaping voter views before June 7th. 

 

The prioritisation of Health presents new opportunities  

For Irish voters, public health is seen as a key issue among 46% of voters, likely a reflection of a long-term perception of deficiencies in the health service alongside lingering memories of the pandemic. The prioritisation of health among European voters offers a significant opportunity to public and private entities alike operating within the Irish healthcare ecosystem to design and promote solutions which improve efficiencies and the overall standard of care across the system. Additionally, the emphasis on health at EU level offers significant opportunities to the pharmaceutical and e-health sectors across the continent, with the proposed reform of EU pharma legislation set to enhance care across the Union. 

Public health is seen as a key issue among 46% of Irish voters. [Photo credit PA]

Poverty, housing and economy 

36% of voters say the fight against poverty and social exclusion is a priority, while 33% rank the economy as a key issue. Ireland has endured strong economic growth over the past number of years, even while the broader EU economy has slowed. Yet, the housing crisis dominates the domestic political agenda as the issue consistently of most importance to the electorate in recent years. House building has been strong in early 2024, with Minister Eamon Ryan predicting that Ireland will exceed its target of 33,450 new builds with 40,000 projected. However, there is still a significant gap between the rate of construction and demand which will see house prices continue to rise for the foreseeable future. Many going to the European polls will be willing to punish government parties for their perceived domestic failures. 

 

A splintered political landscape 

It is difficult to think of a time where Ireland’s political landscape has been so fragmented, with no party currently polling above 30%. The evaporation of the civil war status quo, whereby governments would be led by either one of either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, has created a new dynamic in Irish politics, reflective of advanced proportional representation parliamentary democracies across Europe, where Sinn Féin are the dominant opposition party, yet do not possess any clear path to majority rule absent of a broad coalition which may have to include Fianna Fáil. As such, because the EU elections are paired with local elections, it is likely that the final results will reflect our fractured polling which offers no clear and dominant winner. The growth in support for independents makes it increasingly difficult to see a breakthrough moment for any of the major parties at EU level, although there is scope for Mary Lou McDonald’s Sinn Féin to capture additional seats given their poorer than expected showing in 2019. 

There is scope for Mary Lou McDonald’s Sinn Féin to capture additional seats [Photo credit: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images]

Looming general election and a green agenda in peril  

The European and Local Elections will offer a significant insight into the potential results of the Irish General Election, which is likely to be called in Autumn of this year. Recent polls suggest Fine Gael will likely be the big loser in relative terms in the European Elections, having significantly overperformed in 2019, posing a notable immediate hurdle to new Taoiseach Simon Harris’ authority and the confidence he can command within his party. Local elections will likely also be a difficult outing for the party, with Fianna Fáil hoping, as a middle ground party, that they can capitalise on Fine Gael’s struggles by adding to their MEP tally with representation in Midlands-North-West. The performance of the Green Party in Ireland South and Dublin may also offer an insight as to whether the Irish electorate has turned its back on the green agenda, in line with swathes of other EU nations. 

Ultimately, Ireland’s European Elections are aligning with a relatively new national debate on immigration that has consumed so much of the rest of Europe in the last two decades. With migration being seen as fundamentally tied to the European project over the past decade, political pundits who foresee that June 7th will be a referendum on immigration are prudent in their thinking. It is so often the domestic which drowns out European-level policy debates, and it is what makes these elections so important to the government and opposition alike. Regardless, all of the large and establishment parties (a class of which Sinn Féin is now a part) will feel that they face dynamic headwinds which come in various complex forms of concern. 

Andrew is a Senior Account Executive utilises his extensive experience in advising businesses and interest groups in the healthcare, pharma, energy, hospitality and consumer goods sectors, alongside his education in public policy and diplomacy, to assist in the shaping and delivery of comprehensive public affairs and strategic communications strategies.

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