Ireland: Leo Varadkar sets date for 2020 general election

Tuesday 14th January 2020 18:00 GMT

"I always said that the election should happen at the best time for the country. Now is that time," said the Irish prime minister.

Explaining why, he said a deal on Brexit had been achieved for an "orderly" departure of the UK from the European Union, and a deal agreed to restore Northern Ireland's power-sharing government.

"There will be no hard border, citizens' rights have been protected and the Common Travel Area will remain in place," he said.

Mr Varadkar stressed that Brexit talks were far from over, "in fact, it's only half-time", he said, outlining that the next step was to negotiate a free trade agreement between the EU, Ireland and Britain.

"There exists now a window of opportunity to hold a general election and to have a new government in place before the next European Council meeting in March with a strong mandate to focus on these negotiations into the summer and autumn," he said.

On the domestic front, Mr Varadkar said "our economy has never been stronger" and that there were more people at work than ever before.

"As a nation, we have every reason to be hopeful about the future. We've modernised our society - marriage equality, women's rights, real progress in education, welfare and childcare," he said.

"But, it's not enough. I know it's not enough. People want their government to do much more. And I want us to do much more."

He will now visit Aras an Uachtarain - the president's official residence - to ask President Michael D Higgins to dissolve parliament, the president's office confirmed in a statement.

The dissolution of parliament will formally mark the start of the election campaign.

Over the weekend, Mr Varadkar told RTE Radio One that he had decided on the timing of an election, but said protocol prevented him from revealing it.

Speculation was further driven as pictures emerged of staff erecting posters of Mr Varadkar in his constituency.

Health and housing are likely to be the two major issues the parties will focus their campaigns on.

The state continues to battle its worst ever housing crisis, and hospital overcrowding reached record-breaking levels last year.

Mr Varadkar's minority Fine Gael-led administration has been propped up by a confidence-and-supply deal with Fianna Fail, along with the support of several independent TDs, since an inconclusive 2016 general election.

It had been facing potential defeat in a vote of no confidence in Health Minister Simon Harris in the first week of February. That prospect will now be averted.

However, concerns have been raised over the timing of the election.

Thousands of people may not be registered to vote as the latest 2020 electoral register is currently still in draft form and will not become valid until 15 February.

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Fianna Fail leader Michael Martin welcomed the election, saying: "Things are simply not working in this country in so many areas."

He said he had "no problem" with the date, and added the conversation with Mr Varadkar about the end of the confidence and supply agreement took "about one second".

The announcement comes a day after Mr Varadkar's visit to Belfast for meetings with the leaders of Northern Ireland's restored power-sharing executive.

The Taoiseach and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson held talks with Northern Ireland's First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill at Stormont.

Mr Varadkar confirmed that the "Good Friday Agreement is back up and running again" and that he was looking forward to close cooperation between Britain and Ireland as a new relationship is established after the UK leaves the EU at the end of the month.

Analysis: Varadkar will trumpet diplomatic prowess over Brexit, but will face anger on domestic issues

Stephen Murphy, Ireland correspondent

The posters were going up on Dublin lampposts before the starting pistol had even sounded. After weeks of feverish speculation, this Irish election came as little surprise to anyone.

For three years now, Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar has been at the helm of a minority government. In the Dáil (Irish parliament) his Fine Gael party was propped up by a confidence and supply arrangement with its historically bitter rivals Fianna Fáil.

That deal has been looking increasingly shaky in recent weeks, with backbenchers in both parties straining at the leash to resume hostilities. In many ways, the glue binding the two enemies together dissolved with Boris Johnson's thumping electoral victory across the water. That meant an orderly Brexit this month became a certainty, and that outcome had been the main raison d'etre of the FG/FF deal.

Leo Varadkar was keen to mention Brexit as often as possible in his address the media today, and no wonder. Along with his deputy Simon Coveney, and Europe Minister Helen McEntee, Mr Varadkar has won plaudits for a calm and statesmanlike approach to negotiations, often in stark contrast to the chaotic political maelstrom of Westminster.

The Northern Ireland protocol of the withdrawal deal, avoiding the dreaded hard border, will be used by Fine Gael as an example of this government's diplomatic prowess.

So too, will last week's restoration of the Assembly and Executive in Stormont. Mr Coveney worked tirelessly, often behind the scenes, to help secure agreement with the parties, although the efforts of Secretary of State Julian Smith were equally as instrumental.

Ireland's thriving economy, currently the fastest-growing in Europe, will also be widely trumpeted by Fine Gael. But the party will be hit hard on issues like homelessness and healthcare. The bleak annual pictures of hospital corridors crowded with patients on trolleys will be fresher than usual in the minds of the electorate during a winter election.

Younger voters are angry with a housing market that has led to the lowest rate of home-ownership in almost 50 years, and the ongoing climate crisis, with fiery images from Australia ever-present, will almost certainly produce an electoral bounce for the Greens.

Polling and pundits predict a tightly-fought campaign, ahead of Ireland's first ever Saturday election on February 8th. There is certainly no guarantee that Leo Varadkar's Fine Gael will be the largest party when the newly-elected TDs gather on 20th February for the 33rd Dáil.

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