Ireland votes in EU elections amid Brexit concerns

File photo. The Irish Flag flies outside a polling station in Dublin, Ireland, 25 May 2018. [EPA/EFE]

Phased EU-wide elections take place in Ireland on Friday (24 May) after a campaign dominated by concerns over neighbouring Britain’s messy bid to leave the bloc, and as eurosceptic forces elsewhere in Europe hope to create a political earthquake.

Citizens in Ireland, where support for the European Union has risen because of Brexit, started voting at 7:00 am (0600 GMT). Apart from the European elections, the Irish will vote in a referendum to change the constitution on divorce, and, in Cork, Waterford and Limerick, plebiscites on directly-elected mayors for the cities.

In Ireland, the Brexit crisis has been the key issue due to the future its border with the British-ruled province of Northern Ireland, a key sticking point in negotiations between London and Brussels.

Most mainstream parties in Ireland have campaigned heavily on cementing its place in the European project.

MEP hopefuls also pledged to dampen the economic shock predicted to radiate into Ireland as a result of its largest trading partner leaving the bloc.

When Britain voted to leave the European Union, few voters outside Northern Ireland thought about what it would mean for the British province.

Plans for the future

Three years on, Northern Ireland is inching closer to holding a referendum of its own — on reunification with Ireland.

A united Ireland, and Northern Ireland’s withdrawal from the United Kingdom, remain distant prospects, and a unity referendum may not happen soon. But, as an unexpected consequence of Brexit, the political landscape is shifting.

The two largest parties in the Irish republic, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, both of whom ultimately favour a united Ireland, have expanded their political networks north of the border to position themselves for a possible “unity vote”.

Fine Gael, Ireland’s governing party, has also taken the unusual step of selecting one-time Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Mark Durkan as a candidate to run in the Dublin constituency in this week’s European elections.

“The unity debate has gained legs in the context of Brexit,” Durkan, a former leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), one of Northern Ireland’s two main pro-unity parties, told Reuters while campaigning in the Irish capital.

In the 2016 Brexit referendum, nearly 56% of voters in Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU but the province will leave when the rest as Britain departs — on a date that has not yet been set. Ireland, which won independence from Britain a century ago and joined the EU in 1973, will remain in the bloc as its most committed member, according to recent polling.

Opinion polls in Northern Ireland have for many years shown insufficient support for reunification, but politicians and political analysts point to a growing number of factors that could push public sentiment in the direction of reunification.

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