The whole island has come a long way since the dawn of the new millennium. In and out of a deep recession, the Republic continues to embrace the changes of progressive liberalism: in 2015 it passed marriage-equality legislation granting equal marital status to same-sex couples. Northern Ireland remains resistant to this kind of change, for now – but it continues along the path of peace with greater confidence than ever. Meanwhile, a Brexit-shaped shadow lurks in the distance...
Although the 2016 elections returned the Fine Gael party to government, their unconvincing show in the campaign and the resulting hung parliament that left them relying on a motley crew of independents to govern eventually led to the resignation of Enda Kenny as Taoiseach (Republic of Ireland prime minister) and party leader in May 2017.
His replacement is Leo Varadkar, who happens to be gay and half-Indian. While much has been written about Ireland's remarkable journey over the last three decades that has resulted in the ascent to the highest office of the homosexual son of an immigrant, it is perhaps even more remarkable that he did so as a member of Fine Gael, whose conservative values are woven into the party's DNA.
Varadkar is something of a conundrum. He is charismatic, straight-talking and very much a child of progressive, contemporary Ireland: at 38 he was the youngest person ever to become Taoiseach. But many progressives are troubled by the conservative tone of his politics, and while the new Taoiseach insists that some of his views have evolved (read: softened) over the years, his rise reveals a fascinating dichotomy: he is the product of a social liberalism that he doesn't fully espouse. Or, put another way, his success is down to a mix of political nous and pragmatic conservatism, qualities that make his sexual orientation and ethnic background completely irrelevant.
Brexit & Beyond
What will Brexit bring? At the time of writing, this was the pressing political and economic question. Ireland has close socioeconomic ties with the UK, so most economists believe that 'the harder the Brexit, the worse the outcome', with bilateral trade hit by as much as 20%.
But the biggest impact will be felt by Northern Ireland, which in a post-Brexit landscape will be divided from the Republic by the only land border between the UK and the EU. The majority of its citizens (56% to 44%) voted Remain, but the governing Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) favoured Leave, if only, they argued, to copper-fasten the province’s ties to a UK that was out of the EU.
Despite the display of fealty, the DUP may be fighting a rising democratic tide. The British government remains committed to the union with Northern Ireland as long as a majority of its citizens desire it, but the numbers are worrying for unionists: the 2011 census revealed that of children aged four or under, 49.2% were being raised Catholic and only 36.4% Protestant, evidence that the Catholic/nationalist population will be a majority in the coming years.
Brexit won't change that either: a leaked letter by Brexit secretary David Davis revealed that should the majority of the province vote for reunification with the Republic then neither the British government nor the EU would stand in its way, and that it wouldn’t have to reapply for membership of the EU as the Republic is already a member.
Cash for Ash & the Collapse of the Northern Assembly
Brexit aside, the other big preoccupation in the North is the ongoing fallout from the so-called 'cash-for-ash' scandal that has left the province without a government for much of 2017.
In 2012 the then-environment minister Arlene Foster signed off on the Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI), a green energy scheme that effectively promised £1.60 in subsidies for every £1 spent on heating systems. In December 2016, Arlene Foster's successor as Minister for the Environment, Jonathan Bell, alleged that Foster herself had blocked the postponement of the scheme even though the flaw had been known for some time. In January 2017, the DUP's junior partner in the executive, Sinn Féin, pulled out of government in protest, triggering an election.
The results saw the DUP's majority over Sinn Féin reduced from 10 to 1 and the end of unionism's overall majority in a northern parliament for the first time since partition, as nationalists and independents now outnumbered both unionist parties. It also meant that the DUP was now below the 30-MLA threshold allowing the socially ultra-conservative party to veto legislation it doesn't like (a mechanism that was part of the Good Friday Agreement), most notably on areas such as same-sex marriage: Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK in which it is not legal.
The ensuing negotiations standoff between the DUP and Sinn Féin continued for much of 2017 and into 2018, with neither side willing to make meaningful concessions to the other as a price for resuming their role in a new executive government.
Repealing the 8th
With same-sex marriage already on the statute books of the Republic, the next big social issue it will have to look at is reform of the country's strict anti-abortion laws, outlined in the 8th amendment to the constitution.
In April 2017 a Citizens' Assembly – a body convened by the government to explore constitutional issues – voted overwhelmingly to extend access to abortion with 'no restriction as to reasons' by a majority of 64%. While a majority of the electorate supports reform of the existing law, polls show that two-thirds would reject abortion on request.
The specific wording of a new law is the main challenge for the government, which has indicated that a referendum is likely at some point in 2018. In the meantime, both sides of the argument have dug in for what augurs to be a bitter fight. The pro-choice campaign, which is supported by an overwhelming majority of younger voters, has been especially vocal: you might see people sporting a 'repeal' T-shirt or sweatshirt on your travels. The pro-life campaign has its support among older, more traditional communities and groups affiliated with the church.
The latter's campaign is straightforward, opposing any kind of change to the law as it currently stands, but the pro-choice side must decide whether to pursue a limited liberalisation that will have a greater chance of success, or campaign for wider availability that would likely be defeated.